Polk Co. aims to reopen county on May 1, Lakeland wants to wait for sustained COVID-19 decline

Coronavirus

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – As beaches and even some states prepare to open, Polk County officials have their eyes set on May 1 to reopen the local economy.

“We’ll open everything we can as soon as we can,” said Bill Braswell, chair of the board of county commissioners.

That target date comes the day after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay at home order is set to expire.

“We’re going to have to learn to manage this thing – deal with it forever. The sooner we start doing that the better off we’ll all be,” he said.

Braswell and his fellow commissioners argue it’s important to have a target date to help businesses prepare to return to normal.

Braswell hopes to have non-essential businesses, recreation facilities and trails open on May 1.

The board directed the county manager to figure out how to “soft open” by that date.

Seven day averages show a decline in new COVID-19 cases for three consecutive weeks in Polk County, according to Braswell, the head of the board of county commissioners.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 361 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the County.

“It’s a response, in my opinion, prematurely,” said Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz.

Mayor Mutz and city commissioners sent a letter to Gov. DeSantis advocating for a return to normal only after two weeks of reductions in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“This implementation is a prudent way to protect against an unintended resurgence of the virus,” the letter reads.

They also urge the state to allow reopening on a county-by-county basis.

“The goal isn’t to become heroes with respect to how quickly we can reopen. The goal is to become appropriate protectors of people who don’t need to die unnecessarily from COVID-19,” said Mayor Mutz.

Lakeland has the highest amount of positive coronavirus cases in Polk County at 140.

Mayor Mutz says the spike hasn’t been as steep as expected but cases are still on the rise in the city.

“We have not had any long term incidents of anything but our lines going up so far. So we are cautiously optimistic with respect to the fact that we may be getting to a plateau very near. We would expect for our spike to be in the first two weeks of May,” he said.

He tells 8 On Your Side if that forecast becomes a reality, he expects to begin reopening June 1st.

However, he intends to work closely with county officials.

Both Braswell and Mutz acknowledge the local economy has lost tens of millions of dollars from the closures.

“Our desire is to do it in coordination with our county and it’s in coordination with the state and Floridians. That’s why we think a regional approach makes sense,” said Mayor Mutz.

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