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Will the return of snowbirds boost COVID-19 rate?
week of October 15, 2020

Having more than 100 new COVID-19 cases each week is becoming the new normal for Indian River County this fall, but hospitalizations and deaths are down, and available hospital capacity is way up from just a few days ago. Only one COVID-19 death was reported this week and only nine new people had to be hospitalized. As of Monday afternoon, only nine patients were currently hospitalized with the virus and 42 percent of the county’s ICU beds were available. At the same time, barrier island cases are climbing at a higher weekly rate than usual, with eight more cases this week and 28 cases in the past three weeks as of press time Monday, for a total 32963 case count of 140 since the start of the pandemic. Overall, the island represents only 4 percent of the county’s cases. The big question is whether that low percentage will hold once season is in full swing and the gated communities are once again bustling with activity. This week the island was responsible for 7.8 percent of new positive cases. READ FULL STORY


Grace Rehab, once top rated, now run by former director of troubled facility
week of October 15, 2020

One of the county’s top-rated nursing homes, Grace Rehabilitation Center, has been renamed Orchid Cove. It is apparently now in the hands of a New Jersey private equity firm and being run by the former director of one of Vero’s most problem-ridden facilities. The Portopiccolo Group of Englewood, N.J., has been acquiring dozens of mostly low-rated facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Barron’s, the newspaper published by Dow Jones and Company, said that as part of its “buying spree,” the group was eyeing Grace Healthcare, the Vero facility’s parent. In several of its deals, Portopiccolo used loans arranged by Contemporary Healthcare Capital, a company co-founded by Byron DeFoor, the Chattanooga-based founder of Grace Healthcare and owner of a house on Vero’s Ocean Drive. Whether by purchase or by management agreement, Portopiccolo has placed Grace Rehab under its Orchid Cove brand, one of dozens of names used for the company’s 100 or so facilities, according to Barron’s. A sign out front of the Vero facility reflects the new Orchid Cove name, replacing the Grace Rehab sign that for years boasted the facility’s five-star rating. READ FULL STORY


Public schools preparing for wave of students returning to classrooms
week of October 15, 2020

Public schools here are bracing for several thousand additional students who will be moving from online to in-school attendance in the next two weeks. Students engaged in virtual studies should return to class in person to boost their academics if they can cope with the risks related to COVID-19, said Schools Superintendent David Moore. Testing data shows the academic performance of some virtual students has slipped since last year, Moore said. And many of the district’s most challenged virtual students have yet to take assessment tests. “I look at where we are academically and I look at the students who are in virtual or transitional and I see some grave concerns,” Moore said. “It is alarming.” A total of 5,694 students are enrolled in the virtual schooling program, about 37.5 percent of the district’s population, records show. The other 9,493 students, about 62.5 percent, have returned to class in person. “I want at least 75 percent of our students back in brick and mortar,” Moore said. “The most effective environment for academic success is in a classroom with a live teacher.” READ FULL STORY


Activists urge end to requirement that students wear facemasks
week of October 15, 2020

Public school students would no longer be required to wear facemasks on campus to slow the spread of COVID-19 under new health and safety rules being considered by the Indian River County School Board. Spurred by anti-mask activists, several School Board members said they want to phase out the mandatory mask requirement that has been in place since the new school year started Aug. 24. School Board member Tiffany Justice and several parents claimed their individual legal right to determine whether their children must wear a facemask in school overrules the district’s authority to mandate facial coverings to protect public health and safety. “I’m really concerned now about where we stand in violating the rights of parents and students,” Justice said during the Oct. 6 School Board meeting. Justice threatened to call for a vote on making facemasks optional for students as soon as Tuesday, Oct. 13 but the School Board deferred action following a marathon meeting. READ FULL STORY


Vero Beach Museum of Art finally reopens galleries and sculpture gardens to visitors
week of October 15, 2020

One of the barrier island’s premier cultural institutions has reopened – finally – giving residents and visitors access to a permanent collection of nearly 900 pieces of artwork in a professional museum setting rare in a town the size of Vero Beach. The Vero Beach Museum of Art reopened its galleries and sculpture gardens last Tuesday, albeit with some restrictions, following an almost seven-month closure caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Brady Roberts, executive director/CEO, said he is happy the museum is open again after such a long period of time. For the remainder of 2020 and into 2021, the museum plans to offer virtual and hybrid options for some of its programming and events, along with in-person access to museum galleries. “We have a lot of space in the museum, so we can spread people out safely as long as our numbers stay good in Indian River County,” said Roberts. “But we’ll also give people the opportunity to attend virtually if they want to do it that way.” Those who prefer to visit the museum will at last be afforded an in-person view of the Avery to Warhol exhibition, a curated of selection of artwork from the museum’s permanent collection originally scheduled to open July 17. The show will remain up through Jan. 3. READ FULL STORY


Returning snowbirds will find most private clubs open and welcoming
week of October 15, 2020

When snowbirds return to their clubs this fall, they will find dining rooms, golf courses, tennis courts, fitness centers and other facilities open for business – with some restrictions – as club boards and managers strive to get life back to normal. For members who plan to stay in Vero through the holidays instead of returning north, as many say they do, their families will be welcome to come and join them for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at their clubs. “Members will be able to enjoy the sports and social calendar they know and love, but events will be modified in terms of attendance and socialization before and after,” says Ursula Gunter, director of membership and marketing at The Moorings Yacht & Country Club. “Like everybody else, we’re trying to find creative ways to offer regular services without putting anybody’s safety in jeopardy,” says Tim Straley, general manager at Vero Beach Country Club, where members are now able to walk the golf course at any time of the day. READ FULL STORY


The Vero Beach Bridge Club’s ‘new normal’
week of October 15, 2020

Signs of the pandemic in Florida started cropping up in March, though slightly later in Vero Beach than in other parts of the state. At the Vero Beach Duplicate Bridge Club, there were fewer card players at the tables and club leaders had stopped serving snacks and instituted “hand-washing breaks.” Then during a pause between morning and afternoon games on March 16, the club’s leadership filed past the card tables to a meeting room and closed the door. They emerged just before the start of the 1 p.m. games and headed to a mic at the front of the room. “When we came out of that room, I remember people looking at us for some hint of what was going to happen,” said Martha Glassmeyer, 70, one of two paid managers. Club president Dave LeBar stepped to the mic, board members and employees arrayed behind him. The afternoon games would be the last at the Vero Beach Bridge Club for the foreseeable future, LeBar told the group. READ FULL STORY


Proposed Vero auto museum excites local car collectors
week of October 15, 2020

Automobile enthusiasts on the barrier island are watching with great interest plans to open a classic car museum in 2021 in the former Press Journal building on U.S. 1 in Vero Beach. Wayne Gould, a Tucson-based car collector and long-time beachside resident, came up with the idea, which caught the attention of the Vero City Council last week. Councilmembers unanimously granted a request by Gould to have the words “commercial museum” added to the city code as a permitted use in the C1 commercial zoning district where the abandoned newspaper building is located. Back in August, Gould, who said he has enjoyed living in the 32963 zip code since 1998, attended a preliminary hearing about his application, which he paid $2,000 to have considered. “It’s an art museum but all the art has wheels,” Gould told the city’s planning and zoning committee. The vote last week by the council was not controversial, as the C1 district permits the most intensive commercial uses like big-box retail or even a used car lot, but it did prompt a round of smiles and a buzz at city hall at the prospect of locals and tourists having the chance to view dozens of beautifully restored, vintage, rare and exotic cars in the “Wayne’s Toys” collection. READ FULL STORY


Second major island beach repair project put on hold
week of October 15, 2020

Repairs to dunes and replacement of storm-eroded sand along north island beaches, initially slated to begin in November, will now not begin until in early January so only half the project seems likely to be accomplished this winter season. The change puts at risk not just the island’s eroding shoreline but millions more in state and federal funding, on top of now uncertain funding that was slated for a recently delayed south-island project. County officials say they hope to rebid the north island project and begin part of it sometime in January, but that would leave only a few months until the start of turtle-nesting season at the end of April, when all construction equipment has to be off the beach. Under the county’s fallback, two-step plan for the northern island, a 3.7-mile stretch of beach from Treasure Shores Park south to route 510 will be restored first. Plans call for spreading about 307,000 cubic yards of sand and planting thousands of native dune plants in that section. READ FULL STORY


Vero picks mostly younger residents to serve on riverfront redevelopment steering committee
week of October 15, 2020

Rejecting applications from a former mayor and a longtime member of the planning and zoning and utilities committees, the Vero Beach City Council made good on its goal to appoint more young people to shape the reinvention of the city’s 37-acre riverfront utility site into a community focal point for future generations of Vero families. It took three paper ballots to break a tie for the fifth seat, but the council eventually selected five new members to serve on the Three Corners Steering Committee from the 15 applicants. Replacing the five council members who stepped down to pave the way for a more diverse committee will be Sydney O’Haire, Chloe Rose Schwartz, Ben Earman, Christine Pokorney-Sickterman and Jeff Stassi. O’Haire, Schwartz and Earman are Vero Beach natives who returned to their hometown after college. Pokorney-Sickterman is a University of Florida design school graduate who urged the council to include local professionals with design experience. Stassi, 58, who retired early from a career in city management and nonprofit management, is the most senior of the new crop of Steering Committee members. READ FULL STORY


No daily tickets for this year’s Mardy Fish tennis tournament here
week of October 15, 2020

No daily general-admission tickets will be sold for the $10,000 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships, which starts Monday at The Boulevard Tennis Club. Spectators for the weeklong men’s professional tournament, which has been played in Vero Beach since 1995, will be limited to sponsors, box-seat holders and as many as 80 randomly selected Boulevard members to accommodate social-distancing recommendations during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. According to Tournament Director Randy Walker, club members, who will be admitted free, must sit in the bleachers on the west side of the stadium, directly across the court from sponsors and box-seat patrons. There will be no seating available on the clubhouse deck, where temporary risers were used in past years. Walker said a total of 150 spectators – approximately 35 percent of the venue’s capacity – will be able to attend the tournament at one time. They will not have their temperatures taken before entering the facility, but they will be asked to wear masks and socially distance. READ FULL STORY


Strong slate of local lawyers seeks to replace retiring county court judge
week of October 15, 2020

Undersheriff Jim Harpring, State Attorney Bruce Colton’s daughter and a former Florida assistant attorney general are among seven local lawyers who have applied to replace retiring County Court Judge David Morgan. The candidates were scheduled to be interviewed via Zoom on Tuesday by the 19th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, which will submit three to six names to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who then has 60 days to appoint a new judge. In his Sept. 15 letter to convene the commission, the governor wrote that he “strongly prefers” a maximum number of nominees. Although four years remain on Morgan’s term – his resignation takes effect Jan. 31 – his replacement would be required to seek re-election to a full, six-year term in 2022. READ FULL STORY


COVID-19 cases on island are high for a second week
week of October 8, 2020

In a week of mixed good and bad COVID-19 statistics, the barrier island community had a second consecutive troubling week, adding nine new positive cases for a total of 20 new cases in the past fortnight. That brings the case count for the 32963 ZIP code since the beginning of the pandemic to 132 as we went to press on Monday – an 18 percent increase in just the past two weeks. What is not clear at this point, however, is whether the spike in island cases represents random, unrelated infections from generalized community spread, or one or more clusters where the virus was spread. Several more cases showed up in our public schools this past week. Private and charter schools, which had until two weeks ago been able to keep their COVID-19 case count private and not release any detailed information about cases and quarantines, were outed by the Florida Department of Health, in response to statewide media outlets’ demands for greater transparency. READ FULL STORY


Study of county’s high infant mortality rate enters final phase
week of October 8, 2020

A $60,000 study into Indian River County’s historically high infant mortality rate is entering its final phase, just as economic hardship from the coronavirus pandemic threatens to derail recent improvements here, one health official said. Last week, the leaders of 18 county agencies looking closely at infant deaths joined a Zoom call to discuss ways to better serve the families suffering those losses and proposing ideas to prevent infant deaths in the first place. The Fetal and Infant Mortality Review, a public health strategy that dates to the 1980s and was last used in this county more than a decade ago, is often taken as an indicator of the health of the community at large. The FIMR, as the study is known, is endorsed by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology as well as the March of Dimes and Federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau. “FIMRs aren’t usually done in such a small community,” said Andrea Berry, CEO of Indian River Healthy Start, the organization that coordinated the study along with the Health Department. Berry believes that smaller population means greater awareness of individual tragedies and, as a result, a larger response to the call to improve services. READ FULL STORY


COVID-19 cases pop up at Vero Beach High and Liberty Magnet
week of October 8, 2020

Two students at Vero Beach High School and a student at Liberty Magnet School tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, resulting in the quarantining of 29 students and four staff members. A total of 20 students and four staff members in 13 different public and charter schools in Indian River County have tested positive for COVID-19 since the school year started on Aug. 24, records show. State health officials have directed 339 students and nine staff members in the School District of Indian River County to quarantine since schools reopened. Meanwhile, cases have cropped up in private schools as well. Tabernacle Christian School in South Vero Beach closed “due to a state mandate,” a message on the school’s answering machine said. Two students and an unidentified person associated with the school tested positive for COVID-19 in late September, according to a state Health Department report. “The School Board has instructed me to respond with a ‘no comment,’” Susan Williams, an administrative assistant at the school, said Monday. READ FULL STORY


Snowbirds returning to island earlier this year
week of October 8, 2020

The first of the season’s snowbirds are returning to Vero’s barrier island earlier than normal, and all signs point to a strong influx of seasonal residents this winter, according to government and other sources. Snowbirds typically flock to Vero in mid- to late October or early November, and often return north for the holidays before coming back to spend January through April on the barrier island. But this year, evidence suggests many plan to come and remain in Vero through the holidays, moving their Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations here. “We have noticed an influx of seasonal residents returning over the past couple of weeks,” said Indian River Shores Public Safety Chief Rich Rosell, who added he has seen a steady increase in car carriers and delivery trucks throughout September into October, a clear sign that some northerners are returning earlier than usual. At Pak Mail Beachside, general manager Susan Lorenz said she is hearing from her Fed Ex driver that he is already delivering golf clubs and boxes of clothes to returning residents. READ FULL STORY


Vero to modify new sand screens after beachgoers protest missing ocean view
week of October 8, 2020

Indian River County seems to have put a little bit too much sand on island beaches – or put some of it in the wrong places – in a beach renourishment project early this year that included sand being mounded up so high it covered parts of boardwalk ramps and steps in several locations. Since the project was completed, large amounts of sand have been blowing into Sexton Plaza and Humiston Park, prompting the placement of wind screens that some beachgoers are complaining about because they block beach views. “All that sand blew on top of Sexton Plaza and our boardwalk at Humiston Park,” said Vero Beach public works director Matthew Mitts. Indian River County brought in some 200,000 cubic yards of sand and spread it on more than three miles of Central Beach earlier this year. When they noticed the problem, city officials asked their county counterparts for options to hold back the windblown sand; county officials responded that the ideal solution would be to plant more vegetation on the dunes. But, they said, a quicker method would be to install a windscreen. READ FULL STORY


Supervisor of Elections: ‘We’ve never had this many mail-in ballots before, not ever’
week of October 8, 2020

With the presidency to be decided during the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of county residents are expected to vote by mail in the November election, which likely will result in more of those ballots needing to be “cured” because of signature problems. Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan said last week nearly 48,000 of the county’s registered voters already had requested mail-in ballots. According to her office’s website, more than 11,000 of them had been filled out and returned to her office, as of Sunday. “We’ve never had this many mail-in ballots before – not ever, ever, ever,” Swan said. “A lot of people have been using the drop box at our office. We’re emptying it three to four times a day. We’ve never had to do that.” As a result, Swan said her staff is prepared to respond to a larger number of mail-in ballots that arrive with voters’ signatures missing or not matching the signatures on file with her office. READ FULL STORY


Diverse group applies for Vero’s Three Corners Steering Committee
week of October 8, 2020

Vero Beach City Council members removed themselves from the city’s Three Corners Steering Committee last month to clear a path for young people and fresh ideas on the working group that will recommend the final plan for redeveloping 37 acres of electric and sewer plant property on the riverfront. But several of the 15 people who applied were hardly young or fresh. Instead, the opening up of five seats on this important committee provided the opportunity for has-beens like former mayor Dick Winger and longtime planning and zoning committee member Mark Mucher to come in and try to take over a process that does not need a major overhaul. Fortunately, that did not happen when council members nominated their picks this past Tuesday, because the city actually did attract many of the invested volunteers they were seeking – people who grew up in Vero, ventured out to get an education and then returned to build a future in their hometown, or who chose to relocate in Vero to ply their trade or profession. READ FULL STORY


500 island homes with septic systems face deadline
week of October 1, 2020

Time is running out for roughly 500 homeowners on the barrier island who still have septic systems to comply with the law and then decide whether to hook up to sewer service through Vero’s hybrid STEP system, with possible incentives and financing from the City of Vero Beach. After Jan. 1, island homeowners within Vero city limits who have failed to provide written proof that they have had their septic tank pumped out and it passed inspection could be subject to code enforcement fines. The long-term goal of the city is to phase out septic systems entirely over time, but for now, to at least make sure existing tanks are functioning properly. The innovative Septic Tank Effluent Pumping (STEP) system allows the homeowner to keep a septic tank in place, but pairs the tank with a pump that removes the liquid portion of the waste or effluent to prevent tank failure, and to reduce the leaching of raw sewage into groundwater that flows into the Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon has suffered severe ecological damage in recent years from algae blooms fed by nitrogen and phosphorous, with leaky septic systems identified as a major culprit in the contamination. READ FULL STORY


Retired Vero Beach surgeon running for Hospital District board
week of October 1, 2020

For the first time since Cleveland Clinic came to town, a seat on the Hospital District board of trustees will be up for grabs on the November ballot, as Dr. James Large, a retired surgeon, challenges incumbent Barbara Bodnar, a physical therapist. “I’m not displeased with anybody who’s on the board, to be truthful,” said Large. “They all bring their opinion and point of view. I think I bring a little bit of a different point of view.” Large is a familiar face to many on the board, and not just from sitting in on occasional meetings. He was a highly regarded surgeon in Vero Beach for 25 years after moving here from Grosse Pointe, Mich., in 1981. At the former Indian River Medical Center, he served as chief of surgery and chief of staff, and in 2006 moved into management as the hospital’s first chief medical officer. He also served for three years as vice president of medical affairs at the hospital. READ FULL STORY


COVID-19 cases remain high here; island total jumps
week of October 1, 2020

For the second week in a row, Indian River County saw more than 100 new coronavirus cases, and this week the barrier island was responsible for 12 of the 126 new cases – the largest one-week jump in 32963 since early July. As of press time Monday, the county’s case total stood at 3,225. Six people died over the past week from complications of the virus as Florida hit the 700,000-case mark – but nevertheless entered full Phase 3 reopening, allowing even gyms and fitness centers to operate at 100-percent capacity. Sixty of the county’s 116 deaths – and half the most recent 10 deaths – have been residents of long-term care facilities, where cases have been popping up in nursing homes that had not previously appeared in the Florida Department of Health report on long-term care deaths, along with facilities that have been off the list for many weeks. Last Wednesday nine senior-care facilities had positive cases among residents or staff, but by press time Monday that number was up to 13. READ FULL STORY


Things ‘working out’ for Vero gyms as clients return
week of October 1, 2020

Vero Beach gyms and athletic clubs were finally allowed to resume operation at full capacity this week, and most gym owners and managers who have struggled to stay partly open through the pandemic seem at least somewhat optimistic about the future of their businesses. “There's so much uncertainty right now but we will survive,” said Bob Del Vecchio, owner of the Vero Beach Athletic Club. During the early stages of the pandemic, Del Vecchio said he lost all his trainers and his yoga, circuit training and martial arts classes. Del Vecchio says clients have been slow to return because they are worried about their health. At the same time, he credits a surge in new clients to his reputation for having “the cleanest gym that they have ever seen in their life. “It's a slow process but we are gradually increasing with our numbers, particularly in the training,” he said. “Instead of 10 a week I'm back up to more like 35 to 40.” READ FULL STORY


Honeymoon over between school superintendent and teachers union
week of October 1, 2020

School Superintendent David Moore’s honeymoon with the teachers union came to a harsh end last week as teachers union President Jennifer Freeland excoriated him for problems with the reopening of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Teachers and support staff are shouldering the weight of this pandemic alone, uninformed, scared for their students, themselves, their families, and, yes, in some cases, their job,” Freeland said. According to Freeland, tech issues plague the virtual schooling program for 2,000 students in the district’s “transitional” option, students are still returning to class from virtual schooling, teachers are overburdened by too many students, district staff have not been reassigned to help at schools as promised, and communication with teachers has been inadequate. Just a month ago, Freeland told the School Board that Moore was doing a good job dealing with the pandemic and teachers’ concerns, saying, “The relationship has come a long way in just a few months ... things have become transparent so we can understand each other as we talk. In the process, our relationship got stronger and we have done more together.” READ FULL STORY


Why have far more students been quarantined than teachers?
week of October 1, 2020

As of press time, more than 300 students have been quarantined for potential COVID-19 exposure at the county’s public, charter and private schools, but only a handful of teachers have been isolated. Five more teachers were quarantined Monday, at Indian River Academy, but that was due to one of the five teachers being infected and the other four having close contact with the co-worker – not due to a student COVID-19 infection. Just one teacher, on staff at Fellsmere Elementary, has been isolated due to close contact with an infected student. How can this be since students and teachers share the same classrooms? To find out, we asked the School District of Indian River County, but school officials apparently don’t make the call on who gets quarantined and who does not. “The Department of Health is responsible for the case investigation, contact tracing, and quarantine recommendations,” said school district spokesperson Cristen Maddux. “Our district COVID response team is at each school within the hour of a confirmed case to meet the Department of Health and provide support and information. Close contact criteria and several other factors are taken into consideration when making quarantine decisions.” READ FULL STORY


School District reports more ordered to quarantine for COVID-19
week of October 1, 2020

An Indian River Academy staff member tested positive for COVID-19 and four other teachers and 14 students were directed to quarantine, school district officials said Monday. It was the largest quarantining of a school’s staff since public schools reopened Aug. 24 and the first COVID-19 case reported at the elementary school in South Vero Beach. School officials said the campus was being disinfected and sanitized so Indian River Academy could open Tuesday. A Vero Beach High School student also tested positive for COVID-19 last week and 35 classmates who had come in close contact were directed to quarantine, the school district reported Sept. 22. Overall, a total of 17 students and four staff members in 12 different public schools have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 24, records show. Authorities have directed 309 students and five staff members to quarantine since schools reopened, records show. In addition, a teacher at St. Edward’s School tested positive for COVID-19 and 24 students were directed to quarantine earlier this month. READ FULL STORY


School Board wants electrocardiograms for student-athletes
week of October 1, 2020

Hundreds of student-athletes in Indian River County’s middle and high schools may soon undergo annual electrocardiograms as part of preseason heart exams aimed at preventing sudden cardiac deaths. “We have had a child die, at least one in our district because of this,” said School Board member Teri Barenborg during the Sept. 22 School Board meeting. “The onus is on us to do something about it.” Schools Superintendent David Moore said he would issue a directive outlining how the district will handle the ECG screenings until the School Board can review an official policy. District officials will also seek a funding source to cover the $20 annual ECG screening fees for student-athletes who cannot afford to pay, Moore said. Middle schools are about to begin their athletic programs and high schools are preparing for the winter sports season, so it’s a good time to start the ECG screening program, Moore added. Parents will be offered a chance to opt out of the ECGs after two School Board members expressed reservations about making the heart screening mandatory. READ FULL STORY


Pickup truck driver in crash that killed college rower sues Holy Cross for injuries
week of October 1, 2020

The driver of the pickup truck involved in the crash that killed a member of the Holy Cross rowing team at the intersection of Indian River Boulevard and the Barber Bridge in January has filed a federal lawsuit against the college. Ronald Wolf, now of Vero Beach, claims that Holy Cross women’s rowing coach Patrick Diggins, who was driving a rented passenger van carrying 12 team members, was at fault in the accident. Wolf said he sustained “severe, catastrophic and permanent injuries to his body.” According to a Vero Beach Police Department report, Diggins was turning the southbound van left onto the bridge at about 7:30 a.m. Jan. 15 and pulled directly into the path of Wolf’s northbound red Dodge Ram truck without yielding to oncoming traffic and caused the collision. Holy Cross sophomore Grace Rett, one day after celebrating her 20th birthday here, was sitting in the right-front passenger seat and was killed in the crash. Six of her teammates, along with Diggins and Wolf, were rushed to the trauma unit at Lawnwood Medical Regional Center in Fort Pierce with serious injuries. READ FULL STORY


Prostitution sting charges dropped; defense says that’s not enough
week of October 1, 2020

Vero Beach defense attorney Andy Metcalf was pleased last week when state prosecutors decided not to challenge an appeals court ruling upholding suppression of hidden-camera videos used by police in a February 2019 prostitution sting that resulted in the arrests of more than 100 men in Indian River County. But while Metcalf was thrilled to tell his clients that the State Attorney’s Office was dropping the highly publicized charges against them, he wasn’t satisfied. “There’s still no recognition by the state that what was done by the various law enforcement agencies involved in this investigation was wrong,” said Metcalf, who represented more than 30 of the men arrested. “The statement from the Attorney General’s Office shows a clear lack of understanding and remorse for what they did.” In August, the three judges on Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach unanimously rejected prosecutors’ arguments in defense of the police surveillance of two local massage spas, describing the tactics as “extreme” for investigating misdemeanors. READ FULL STORY


Environmental regulators cracking down on lagoon pollution
week of October 1, 2020

Citing weak sea grass recovery from recent algae blooms in the central Indian River Lagoon between Sebastian Inlet and St. Lucie County, state environmental regulators are requiring Indian River County, the city of Vero Beach, and other local government bodies and farms to drastically reduce the amount of pollution flowing into the estuary. The Florida Department of Environmental Regulation is, for the first time, requiring local entities in our area to meet concrete targets for reducing the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater, stormwater, agriculture and septic systems that enter the lagoon. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the main chemicals that feed algae blooms that smother sea grass – the foundation of the lagoon’s health. Representatives from the city and county and other agencies learned about the updated lagoon management plan at a webinar conducted by FDEP. They are required to tell the agency whether they can meet the revised limits in five to 10 years and what projects they could undertake to meet those targets. READ FULL STORY


South Beach dune replenishment project delayed for at least a year
week of October 1, 2020

Hopes for a much-needed $9.9-million beach repair project washed away last week when the county commission voted to put off spreading sand and rebuilding dunes along an eroded 2-mile stretch of South Beach shoreline from Seagrove to the Moorings. The county postponed the project for at least one year because not enough beachfront property owners gave permission for workers to be on land they own, which extends inland from the high-tide line and includes the dunes. Some refused outright, while many others did not respond to county inquiries. The postponement jeopardizes $5.7 million in state and federal grants earmarked for the project that could be awarded to some other entity between now and fall 2021. The county wanted agreements with 90 percent of beachfront property owners to ensure the repairs would not be undermined by gaps in the dune line. But after months of mailings, phone calls, canvassing by community groups and a public webinar, the county only managed to secure about half of the private property access easements it needs for this stretch of beach. READ FULL STORY


Grand Harbor: Trouble in mainland paradise
week of September 24, 2020

Grand Harbor members are poised to go to court, alleging the club’s management has failed to properly maintain facilities – including the community’s two golf courses – and is not operating the club in accordance with the contract between the parties. Multiple lawsuits are expected to be filed as soon as next month by individual plaintiffs, with the legal actions financed by nearly $120,000 contributed to the cause by more than 100 members, the Grand Harbor Members Association’s board of governors wrote in an email to members last week. “Any benefits resulting from the litigation will benefit all club members,” the board’s email stated, adding, “Resolution of this proceeding will take time, but that is the most viable course available for GHMA to do something that will affect major long-term change.” The lawsuits cannot be filed until late October, after the expiration of a 90-day waiting period triggered by the board’s demand letter to Bayswater Development LLC, the community’s Massachusetts-based developer. Bayswater is owned by Icahn Enterprises, billionaire Carl Icahn’s New York-based conglomerate. READ FULL STORY


VNA to build new facility near hospital
week of September 24, 2020

In one of the most ambitious fundraising efforts in Indian River County’s healthcare history, the VNA/Hospice of the Treasure Coast has moved a step closer to building a $12-million-to-$15-million facility that would further enable its mission of supporting in-home and institutional care while improving community health. Last week, the Indian River County Hospital District voted to begin negotiations on a letter of intent that would allow the VNA to add a 10-acre parcel to its existing land lease at the site near the hospital where its Hospice House stands. On that extra land, the VNA proposes building a 45,000-square-foot, three-story operations center and a 10,000-square-foot medical education building that would be used by the healthcare community at large. Leading the fundraising campaign would be Annabel Robertson, who on Oct. 1 will become the VNA foundation’s executive director. A lawyer by training, Robertson previously served as executive director of United Against Poverty, an organization that last year raised nearly $8 million to transform a citrus packinghouse into a new 46,000-square-foot facility that will include a copay grocery store and a support center for people needing job training, life-skills training or emotional help. READ FULL STORY


County judge will retire midterm after 24 years on the bench
week of September 24, 2020

County Judge David Morgan said health was a factor in his decision, at age 63, to retire at the end of the year after spending the past 24 years on the bench. Good health. “I wanted to do this while I’m still healthy and able to do the things I enjoy doing,” Morgan said last week, when news of his retirement – with four years remaining on his fifth six-year term – created a buzz in the local legal community. “I enjoy hiking and camping, and I’d like to do some traveling with my wife, so I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time,” he explained. “I’ve been working since I was 24 years old. We had kids late in the game. There wasn’t a lot of free time. “So, I’m looking forward to this,” he added. “I might even take up golf again.” Morgan, a lifelong Vero Beach resident whose family has deep roots in the community, plans to stay in town and, when needed, fill in as a senior judge after waiting the required one year after his retirement. READ FULL STORY


COVID-19 cases here rise after several week lull
week of September 24, 2020

After an encouraging start to September that saw a decrease in the county’s COVID-19 caseload, the past week was troubling with 109 new cases and four deaths, plus outbreaks at two of our larger nursing homes. Hopefully, the jump in coronavirus cases and the re-emergence of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities is more of a fluke than a trend as the county’s cumulative case count sat at just under 3,100 at press time. The barrier island continues to fare better than the mainland, with the 32963 ZIP code adding one new case roughly every other day for a pandemic total of 111 cases as of Monday. Grace Rehabilitation Center’s active cases jumped from five residents to 11 residents, and Willowbrooke Court at Indian River Estates – which had fallen off the list of facilities with active cases – reported one resident and three staff members had tested positive this week, according to the Florida Department of Health data on Monday. Kids have been back in school for a month now, and 13 of our public, private and charter schools have had students or staff test positive for COVID-19, necessitating the quarantine of hundreds of students. READ FULL STORY


First COVID cases reported at St. Ed’s lower school, Indian River Charter High
week of September 24, 2020

St. Edwards School experienced its first COVID-19 case and 24 lower school students were directed to quarantine after coming in contact with a person diagnosed with the virus. St. Ed’s was notified last week of a single case of COVID-19 in the lower school, said Head of School Stuart Hirstein in a Sept. 17 statement. It was St. Ed’s first positive case since the school reopened Aug. 20. The barrier island school declined to disclose whether the person was a student or staff member, citing privacy concerns. Contact tracing identified 24 students who must quarantine for 14 days, Hirstein said. The students are able to take their classes using livestreaming technology available in each classroom. “We’re very proud of how the students and faculty have embraced all of the protocols that allow us to remain together on campus,” Hirstein said. The school does temperature checks in the morning, cleans the campus throughout the day, and requires facemasks on campus and in classrooms, Hirstein said. READ FULL STORY


Nemours Pediatrician ‘strongly recommends’ kids get flu vaccine
week of September 24, 2020

So far, the health precautions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our local classrooms seem to be working pretty well. But all the masks, social distancing and hand-washing don’t seem to be preventing kids from getting sick from maladies other than coronavirus – and it’s not even flu season yet. Dr. Karen Westberry at Nemours Children’s Primary Care of Vero Beach said she thinks Indian River County Schools are doing a great job implementing sound public health measures on campus, and she’s only seen “a handful” of young COVID-19 cases. But that’s not reducing the traffic into her Vero Beach practice much. “We’ve actually been quite busy with sick kids. Since they are all back in school, everyone’s getting colds and coughs, sore throats and stomach aches,” Westberry said. “Schools are very quick to send them home and get them evaluated before they let them back in. “We always see more kids once kids are back in school because they share their germs,” Westberry said. “With the social distancing and masking, we were hopeful that we wouldn’t see quite the surge.” READ FULL STORY


When will Indian River County get more CARES Act cash from the state?
week of September 24, 2020

Indian River County, like other Florida counties, has been in a strange limbo when it comes to spending tens of millions in CARES Act cash. Indian River County was allocated $28 million in federal CARES Act funding to help deal with the local consequences of the pandemic, but the money flows through the state and so far the county has received only $7 million. Meanwhile, the deadline to spend the CARES Act money is Dec. 30. On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis finally announced a disbursement plan for the second round of CARES Act funding to counties with populations below 500,000, like Indian River. But the plan does not specify how much more money the county will receive. Until Friday’s announcement, Indian River County officials – and their counterparts in neighboring counties – were left to wonder if and when they would get additional money. And they are still in limbo about the balance of the funds, including the amount of the second round. READ FULL STORY


Harbor branch study traces life of dolphin
week of September 24, 2020

A research report co-authored by a Harbor Branch scientist sheds new light on the fatal problem of bottlenose dolphins becoming entangled in fishing gear in the Indian River Lagoon. What began as a feel-good story about researchers freeing a dolphin calf from a fishing net near Vero in 2015 came to a sad end two years later when rescuers recovered the young animal’s badly-battered and emaciated body off Fort Pierce – victim of repeated encounters with fishermen and boats. Scientists say more than 1,000 bottlenose dolphins live in the 156-mile-long lagoon and tend to hang out in the same areas year after year. They frequent spots favored by recreational and commercial fishers, hoping to score an easy meal from people’s fishing lines and nets – a factor in more than 50 dolphin rescues and disentanglements in the waters of Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties since 1999. The travails the dolphin calf suffered in its short life are the subject of a scientific study of the entire event from rescue to postmortem co-authored by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute assistant research professor/clinical veterinarian Dr. Annie Page-Karjian in BMC Veterinary Research. READ FULL STORY


32963 real estate has record summer
week of September 17, 2020

The summer of 2020 has been the busiest ever for 32963 barrier island real estate – a record-breaking spree of home buying and selling fueled, ironically, by the pandemic itself, which has motivated buyers to flee densely populated big cities and relocate to small, “safer” locales like the Vero Beach. Between May 1 and Labor Day, island home sales were up 57 percent compared to the busy summer of 2019, according to data provided by Mike and Kim Thorpe, broker-associates with ONE Sotheby’s International Realty. New contracts, a leading indicator of market volume, jumped almost off the charts, with inked deals up by more than 125 percent compared to the same period last year. The number of homes priced at $1 million or more listed as sold in the MLS between Memorial Day and Labor Day surged from 39 to 54, with the dollar volume of those sales more than doubling, from $62 million to $130 million. “In what is normally our quietest time, we have had record levels of sales,” said John’s Island Real Estate Broker Bob Gibb. “We came out of the COVID shutdown expecting the worst, but it has turned out to be the best summer ever.” READ FULL STORY


Sebastian River hospital struggles to fill patient beds
week of September 17, 2020

As Sebastian River Medical Center braced for the financial strains of a pandemic and tried to finish a much-delayed $65-million addition, the hospital was also fighting for an infusion of its own financial life-blood – patients in the door. Figures just released by the state to Vero Beach 32963 show Sebastian River Medical Center continued to see a drop in patient volume through the end of 2019. That is despite assurances last fall from then-CEO Kyle Sanders who predicted an “astonishing turnaround” was underway with an anticipated 9 percent increase in patients by year’s end. Instead the 2019 figures show a 4 percent decline in inpatients; a 9 percent drop in emergency department visits; and a 24 percent drop in ambulatory outpatient services. While figures for 2020 will not be available for several months, this past Sunday, Sebastian River showed only 69 of its patient beds filled; only 10 more were staffed and available beyond that. That accounts for just over half the hospital’s licensed beds. The downward trend, which began in 2017, the year Steward Health Care acquired the hospital, has brought patient utilization to its lowest point since 2012. READ FULL STORY


Cut in state funding reduces services to special needs adults
week of September 17, 2020

The Arc of Indian River County, a nonprofit that provides job training, group homes and other services to special needs adults, has been forced to cut services due to pandemic conditions and reduced state funding. A day program operated by Arc that provided job and life skills to 110 clients before the pandemic has been cut by half, and the group’s transportation services have been eliminated. In addition, up until last week, five group homes here were on lockdown for months, with residents isolated from friends, family and residents in other group homes. Now, limited visitation is allowed but with no physical contact. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Florida ranked dead last nationwide in terms of reimbursements to the organizations that support special needs adults, and the situation has only gotten worse during the pandemic. “It’s hard enough to provide services normally, before something like covid comes along,” said Heather Dales, CEO of the Arc IRC, which supports more than 220 clients in total. “We have to go to the community to meet normal operating expenses or to do capital improvements [because of sparse state funding].” READ FULL STORY


Beachside salons, spas hoping for a surge in October
week of September 17, 2020

When salons and spas were finally allowed to reopen after stay-at-home mandates were lifted for the industry, clients flocked to their stylists, barbers, nail techs and estheticians to have their roots done, hair trimmed, eyebrows plucked, and nails painted. But after the initial flurry died down, things settled into the typical summer slowdown for some beachside salons and spas. The overwhelming consensus among spa owners is that October – the start of the preholiday mini-season – can’t come too soon. Salon Salon owner Heather Berlin says she was closed for nearly three months. A cancer survivor, she closed before mandated spring shutdowns occurred, erring on the side of caution. “It’s been difficult because I lost my entire season. Within those two months (March and April), you make enough to live on. I’ve been in my salon for 30 years, so I’m well aware that I have to put away for the summer,” says Berlin. She took safety protocols seriously when she reopened, going so far as having a client leave when she mentioned that she had just flown into town from New York. “Everybody’s head in the entire salon turned,” recalls Berlin. “We asked her to leave and sanitized everything.” READ FULL STORY


COVID-19 cases on island drop to summer low
week of September 17, 2020

Vero’s barrier island communities have had the lowest number of new coronavirus cases for a three-week stretch since the beginning of June. The 32963 ZIP code has added only 10 new positive COVID-19 cases since the last week of August, and the island’s total at press time since the start of the pandemic is 108 cases. By comparison, the mainland area of Vero Beach just across the causeways – ZIP code 32960 – surpassed the 800-case mark this past week. Hospitalizations have generally remained in the single digits locally, with Gov. Ron DeSantis announcing that hospitalizations are down 73 percent statewide as compared to the July peak. The percentage of emergency room visits nationwide for COVID-like illness has decreased for eight consecutive weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New COVID-19 cases in Indian River County nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are even starting to ebb, as limited visitation started up in facilities that had no new cases for the preceding 14 days. READ FULL STORY


Vero police suspended enforcing beachside parking limits
week of September 17, 2020

Vero Beach police have stopped enforcing time limits on parking spaces in the beachside business district and downtown, ostensibly in an attempt to help struggling merchants during the pandemic. But the lack of enforcement of time limits has actually made the beachside parking problem worse, some merchants said. If you’ve been to the Central Beach or downtown Vero business districts the past few months, you might’ve noticed unticketed vehicles parked for longer than the allowed two or three hours. That’s because the Vero Beach Police Department hasn’t been enforcing parking time limits during the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted a state-mandated shutdown of businesses deemed unessential and the restricted operations of those permitted to remain open. “We’re in an extraordinary situation because of COVID and the shutdown, and the impact it’s had on local businesses,” Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey said. “We’ve been talking to merchants, who’ve told us they haven’t been getting many customers, and some businesses have been struggling to stay open. READ FULL STORY


Domestic violence has spiked in county since start of pandemic
week of September 17, 2020

Domestic violence has spiked in Indian River County since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as a result of stress caused by job losses, financial instability, eviction threats and people stuck at home together, according to SafeSpace, a nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence. Aimee Markford, the county Sheriff’s Office’s CFO and a SafeSpace board member, said the sheriff’s Victim Advocates Unit reports showed a slow rise in domestic violence cases in March and April 2020 that accelerated dramatically in May and has remained high since. SafeSpace CEO Teresa Albizu said reported cases are “just the tip of the iceberg. What happens is a lot of these instances go unreported. So, when you’re hearing these large increases, you can only imagine what’s going on behind closed doors [that is not reported].” Albizu said that while most calls to law enforcement are from the victims, other victims are held hostage at home, with access to the Internet or telephone forbidden, making it difficult for them to seek help. READ FULL STORY


Vero Beach City Council decides to focus on riverfront development costs
week of September 17, 2020

Vero Beach officials have decided to nail down many of the costs of the city’s planned riverfront development project sooner instead of later, and to get a more concrete idea about the commercial viability of the plan. Up till now, the council and the project steering committee have moved far down the line with planning a major waterfront development without tabulating or analyzing the costs of the various components or the overall project. Front-loading analysis of the finances and the development market as newly proposed might drag the process out a few months, but it would likely result in a more realistic and feasible plan in the end. Now, the council is expected to start talking about project infrastructure costs and recurring maintenance costs – and how to fund those costs – at a council meeting or workshop in October that will be devoted to financial concerns. Councilman Rey Neville asked for a workshop. He said the process followed by the council up till now of coming up with a plan, floating a referendum and then, after it passes, performing the due diligence required to make the plan work is “totally backwards.” READ FULL STORY


Natural gas won’t be coming soon to Vero’s barrier island
week of September 17, 2020

Residents in Indian River Shores recently found questionnaires in their mailboxes asking if they would sign up for natural gas service if it was available, raising hopes a gas pipeline might be coming to the island soon. But while Town Manager Joe Griffin said he had “heard there was a great response in the affirmative” to the survey, which was mailed to all residents of the barrier island, Florida City Gas said it currently has no firm plans or timeline for running gas lines down A1A. The official statement said “Florida City Gas is actively exploring the potential for extending natural gas service to the barrier island. To gauge potential interest from the community, FCG mailed information and a survey to all island residents.” Spokesperson Bianca Soriano said FCG received a “strong initial response” from island residents. “That is a good indicator in helping us decide what is in the best interest of local communities and our company. “If we decide to pursue the necessary approvals for this project, gas lines would likely be installed along the A1A corridor from Windsor south, serving the residential communities and the Central Beach business district, and then southward to at least the 17th Street causeway area,” Soriano said. READ FULL STORY


U.S. Supreme Court asked by county to hear last-ditch Brightline appeal
week of September 17, 2020

Indian River County’s legal challenge against the Brightline passenger rail extension is an “excellent vehicle” for the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve legal issues concerning when federal courts can rubber-stamp government decisions, the county’s appellate counsel argued last week. “It concerns one of the most important issues before the federal courts – when judicial deference to informal agency interpretations of statutes is appropriate,” wrote Jeffrey Lamken, in a legal brief filed last Tuesday. Indian River County is challenging U.S. Department of Transportation authorization of $2.1 billion in tax-exempt bonds to help finance the extension of the Brightline passenger railroad from West Palm Beach to Orlando. The county argues DOT improperly allocated highway project bonds to the passenger rail project. “The critical fact is that DOT allocated bonds to a project that did not receive – and was not eligible to receive – federal assistance under Title 23 (Highways),” Lamken wrote. Indian River County’s appeal is among the cases the Supreme Court justices are scheduled to discuss at their Sept. 29 conference, records show. READ FULL STORY


Best time of the year for surf anglers has arrived with the ‘mullet run’
week of September 17, 2020

From now through mid-October is the best time of the year if you are a nearshore or surf angler fishing a along the coast of our island. We are currently in the exciting throes of what fishermen call the “mullet run”: the annual southward migration of millions of forage fish – mullet, pilchards, bay anchovies and glass minnows – spurred by cooling water temperatures along the South Atlantic coast. These bait fish are being chased by legions of hungry predators – sharks, king and Spanish mackerel, tarpon, jacks, snook and ladyfish – that just about everyone likes to catch. And those larger fish generally swim within casting range of the beach or just outside the surf break. “There’s no way to get bored out there,” said Vero Beach angler and fly-fishing expert Bill Grady. For those who have never witnessed the mullet run, it looks like somebody set off a depth charge right off the beach, with thousands of small brown and silver torpedoes exploding into the air and larger torpedoes flying and splashing hot on their tails. READ FULL STORY


State confirms major problems at Sea Breeze
week of September 10, 2020

A state inspector who checked out the Sea Breeze Rehabilitation and Nursing Center after the daughter of a COVID-positive patient called in a complaint issued a lengthy report last week, largely backing up the accounts of families who have told Vero Beach 32963 of outrageous problems at the facility where nearly 60 coronavirus cases left seven patients dead in June and July. The state report told of a broken hot water heater that “intermittently” left the building without hot water in the middle of a pandemic. One former staff member as well as family of residents at the facility told Vero Beach 32963 the faulty hot water heater had been on the blink for as long as three months. It also cited inadequate nursing staff that, among other problems, caused residents to go without showers and baths for weeks, residents said. The inspector spoke with multiple residents who said they had gone three weeks without a shower. The lack of hot water also affected laundry procedures at the facility, according to the former staff member. She said that staff members were forced to pile dirty laundry in the nursing home’s van and drive it to a laundromat. READ FULL STORY


New COVID-19 deaths slow in past week locally
week of September 10, 2020

Finally this week, the number of new COVID-19 deaths locally slowed somewhat, with six additional deaths and 67 more positive cases in the county reported through Sunday. The downward trend in deaths and new cases is encouraging as Florida works to catch up on reporting backlogs and death certifications. Hopefully, that statistic will dwindle to zero new deaths sometime soon if residents remain vigilant in social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing practices to slow the spread of the virus. As of Sunday the county’s rate of people who had died with the virus since the start of the pandemic stood at 3.6 percent of positive cases, with 54 deaths – or 52 percent – being residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. That is considerably above the national average. About 40 percent of all coronavirus-related deaths in the United States have been among the staff and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. A dozen new patients suffering with the virus had to be admitted to a hospital over the past week. That’s down from an average of 22 new hospitalizations per week in August. READ FULL STORY


A ’better-than-expected’ summer
week of September 10, 2020

The summer of 2020 turned out much better for island hotels and shops than almost anyone expected coming out of the coronavirus lockdown. Some businesses report a decline in sales compared to prior summers, but the big hotels and many shops say they have been busy, with some having their best summer ever. Snowbirds staying in Vero longer than usual, instead of returning to the Northeast where the pandemic was intense during the spring, and flocks of visitors from South Florida, which has seen many more coronavirus cases than the Treasure Coast, are two main factors that drove the successful summer season. A strong real estate market, which brings new residents and potential buyers to town, also helped. South Florida visitors, along with guests from Orlando and other large Florida cities, see Vero as a relatively safe place to take a vacation or weekend getaway and they have filled the larger hotels on weekends. That activity, in turn, has helped other Central Beach businesses as visitors ventured out from their hotels to shop and dine. READ FULL STORY


Quarantined students set to return to their classrooms this week
week of September 10, 2020

Five students in four Indian River County public schools have tested positive for COVID-19 since schools reopened two weeks ago, leading to the quarantining of an additional 81 students and one staff member. More than 30 of the quarantined students were expected to return to school this week on Tuesday, according to School Superintendent David Moore. Fellsmere Elementary, Sebastian River High School and Vero Beach High School each had a single student test positive for the virus, Moore said, while Osceola Magnet had two students. No staff members have tested positive, he added. The students testing positive should serve as a warning to the community about the danger of the virus and the need for safety precautions, a parent said Friday. “Hopefully, this will encourage everyone to take this seriously,” said Mark Manera, whose son is a fourth-grader at Osceola Magnet. “There are so many people who are doubters and they don’t know what to believe on the news. They think it’s a hoax, some people. READ FULL STORY


Five candidates join race for Vero Council
week of September 10, 2020

Five people have qualified to run for three seats on the Vero Beach City Council in November, and this Wednesday’s scheduled budget hearing is a prime example of why voters need to choose three fiscal conservatives. When the budget process began, the city staff anticipated the revenue situation would be dismal thanks to the pandemic economy’s effect on sales tax and gas tax receipts. Based upon that, the city council opted to keep the property tax rate the same to bring an extra quarter-million dollars into the general fund instead of going to the “rolled-back” rate that would have brought in the same tax dollars as the current year. That quarter million dollars in extra property taxes would help fund an additional eight employees and a $565,000 increase in payroll at a time when the local businesses paying those taxes are laying people off, implementing furloughs or taking out loans to keep their doors open. READ FULL STORY


No election needed: Shores to usher in 3 new council members
week of September 10, 2020

Indian River Shores residents will not vote for new town council members this fall since only three candidates filed for the three open seats. Christian Hendricks, John McCord and Mary Alice Smith were automatically elected to four-year terms and will step up to the dais in November as Mayor Tom Slater, Vice Mayor Bob Auwaerter and Councilwoman Debbi Peniston pass the torch to the new members. Peniston said of her choice not to seek re-election, “It’s been a privilege and an honor to work on the town council for four years, but four years is a long time.” She expressed her admiration of and gratitude for the staff who keep the town running, especially Town Manager Joe Griffin, Town Clerk Laura Aldrich and Town Treasurer Heather Christmas, and said she’s “very supportive” of the new council members. “I’m sure they’ll do a fine job.” READ FULL STORY


16th Street ballfields property may not be sold to a developer after all
week of September 10, 2020

Just last week, Vero Beach 32963 reported that Vero Beach City Councilman Joe Graves was, by his account, close to a deal with Indian River County that would have allowed him to sell the 16th Street ballfields property he owns to an Orlando developer who planned to build homes there. That has abruptly changed. This week, Graves said his dream of converting the property into a recreation and youth-activities complex to honor his son has been resurrected with the help of former St. Edward’s School football coach Bill Motta. Graves said Friday he canceled a $1.1 million contract to sell the 11.6-acre parcel he purchased from the county 3 ½ years ago to the Orlando firm. The developer planned to build affordable, multi-family housing on the property. Instead, Graves said he will keep the land, where Motta – hired in February to maintain and operate the complex – has been running youth, athletic and recreational programs for the past six months. “Bill’s presence has changed things,” Graves said, explaining that Motta has used his coaching, administrative and maintenance skills to create programs that have sparked a renewed interest in the complex. READ FULL STORY


Professional tennis tourney to return to Vero in October
week of September 10, 2020

Vero Beach’s annual men’s professional tennis tournament, postponed this year because of the pandemic, has been rescheduled for Oct. 19-25, but organizers said last weekend they were unsure if this year’s event would be sanctioned, as usual, by the United States Tennis Association and International Tennis Foundation. If not, organizers said the tournament still would be played at The Boulevard Tennis Club under the banner of the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships, but as a Universal Tennis Rating “open” event with no qualifying rounds and as many as 64 men competing for $10,000 in prize money. The Universal Tennis Rating is a global rating system – separate from the men’s ATP Tour and women’s WTA Tour world rankings – that began sanctioning small, pro events in May, when the major tours were shut down by the pandemic. “I expect to get a strong field, regardless of whether it’s a USTA Pro Circuit event or a UTR event,” Tournament Director Randy Walker said. READ FULL STORY


Faces of pandemic: Couple dies three days apart
week of September 3, 2020

On a bicycle festooned with blue Christmas lights, Isidoro De La Paz pedaled through Fellsmere every day, his white hair and beard flagging his approach from at least a block away. People remember him waving as he passed, sometimes stopping for a laugh with old friends. At 78, De La Paz could walk four miles, his son said, which spoke as much to his fitness as his urge to get out and about. His wife Maria, 73, kept their house full of life, raising with enormous pride six children plus three grandchildren, and fawning over her “babies” – 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She kept a packed calendar of celebrations, cooking for dozens as a matter of course. Like her husband, Maria De La Paz was “a fixture in the Fellsmere community,” her obit read, with “a huge smile, hug and kiss for those that crossed her path.” How else but hugs to explain how the beloved couple were exposed to COVID-19 in mid-July, as the coronavirus seemed to be chasing down Fellsmere’s Mexican-American community like a swarm of yellow jackets, stinging at random with its lethal spikes. READ FULL STORY


COVID death toll doubles during August
week of September 3, 2020

As August came to a close, the daily number of new positive cases of COVID-19 here had dwindled to single digits and new hospitalizations were trending downward, but the death toll more than doubled in the month. Indian River County saw a record 18 reported deaths during the last week of August alone. Some of the 50 deaths reported in August were likely due to a backlog in paperwork, but when will this rising number slow down? More deaths were reported in August than in the prior five months combined. Many of the 98 deaths came from local nursing homes. In the past week, 11 more residents were reported to have died with COVID-19 in Vero’s two largest nursing homes. The combined death toll in Consulate of Vero and Palm Garden now stands at 25, and still, executives from both facilities are offering no explanation and no plan to ramp up infection control or testing. Neither Consulate Health Care, a chain of 145 nursing homes based in Maitland, near Orlando, nor Palm Garden, based in Sarasota, returned emails or phone calls. Calls to directors of the local facilities were not returned. READ FULL STORY


Positive tests at one elementary school worry parents:‘We are all afraid’
week of September 3, 2020

Some Beachland Elementary School parents are concerned about COVID-19 spreading and school being closed after two students tested positive for the virus at Osceola Magnet School. “That is concerning,” said Tashae Golfe, who has a son in third grade and a daughter in fourth grade at Beachland Elementary. “We’re all really taking a risk. We are all afraid of it happening.” Anabella Fiorini, who has a son in second grade at Beachland Elementary, said she was surprised the virus turned up at Osceola Magnet because the younger students are better about following the health and safety guidelines than teenagers. “I’m going to just wait to see what’s going to happen next, see if any other schools are going to have the same issues as Osceola or if that’s going to be the only one,” Fiorini said. “If that keeps happening with other elementary schools, then we’ll take him out, probably,” Fiorini said. “But as of right now, we’re just going to let him stay in school.” READ FULL STORY


Indian River Shores poised for a most unusual election
week of September 3, 2020

Not since 1977 has the Town of Indian River Shores had the opportunity to usher in three new council members with no incumbents seeking re-election, but it could happen this November. The only other time it happened prior to 1977 was when the town was newly incorporated in 1953. But all three council members with terms expiring this year – Mayor Tom Slater, Vice Mayor Bob Auwaerter and Councilwoman Debbi Peniston – have told both the town and Vero Beach 32963 that they do not intend to run in this year’s municipal race. Qualifying ends noon Friday, so unless one of the incumbents reconsiders or a new candidate files to run, Christian Hendricks, John McCord and Mary Alice Smith will win seats on the Shores Town Council by default. “Mary Alice is one of those people who is a doer,” Slater said. “She really knows how to get things done. Chris has been great on planning and zoning and John was very involved in the Vero electric issue.” READ FULL STORY


Graves says he is close to a deal with county on sale of 16th Street ballfields
week of September 3, 2020

Vero Beach City Councilman Joe Graves said last week he’s not seeking reimbursement for “thousands of dollars” he spent to maintain the 16th Street ballfields property he purchased from the county in 2017, but he does expect to recoup the $250,000 he paid for the parcel and another $250,000 he invested in improving it. “I’ll cover the maintenance costs,” he said, “but as far as the improvements we made to the property, they’re all documented.” According to Graves, the improvements included removing antiquated lighting, old and unsafe fencing, a rotting shed and two unusable field houses; repairing the irrigation system and replacing pumps; remodeling the Bud O’Reilly Field House; installing 5 acres of athletic turf; and resurfacing the parking lots. “We tried to repurpose as much as we could,” Graves said, “but most of the stuff, we couldn’t even give it away.” Graves purchased the 11.6-acre property in March 2017 through the Jimmy Graves Foundation, named after his son who died in a boating accident the previous year. He got a sweetheart deal from the county, paying much less than the appraised value of the land, and planned to build a youth-activities complex that would include a regulation-size track that could be used by Vero Beach High School athletes. READ FULL STORY


Just two weeks left for property owners to approve beach project
week of September 3, 2020

Indian River County officials are calling on oceanfront property owners on south beach to quickly sign agreements allowing access to their properties for a dune renourishment project this fall. If they don’t, the county risks losing millions in state and federal funds. So far, the county has managed to secure only about 60 percent of the permissions it needs from property owners along a 2-mile stretch from Treasure Cove to Floralton Beach – an area known as Sector 7 – to shore up dunes and replace some 295,000 cubic yards of sand lost to recent storms. The sign-up success rate is much better at the northern end of the island, Sector 3 – which spans 6.6 miles from Treasure Shores to Turtle Trail beach park. Nearly 80 percent of property owners there have signed permissions. County commissioners have set a deadline of Sept. 15 to decide whether to continue the project in both sectors or postpone it for a year, with the decision based on obtaining easement agreements from 90 percent of property owners. READ FULL STORY