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Why didn't Palm Beach County step in to stop 'super-spreader event?'

Video shows thousands of maskless people gathered at Palm Beach County Convention Center
Maskless crowds at Turning Point USA conference, Dec. 22, 2020
Posted at 7:44 PM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 19:51:35-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Contact 5 has learned at least one Palm Beach County commissioner plans to ask questions after video from inside a conference at the county's convention center shows many people maskless and not social distancing.

Video showing about 2,000 people inside the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Tuesday is causing concern.

In the video, participants attending the last day of the Turning Point USA's Student Action Conference can be seen gathered close together, many maskless.

People in close proximity not wearing masks at Turning Point USA conference, Dec. 22, 2020
WPTV cameras showed many people in close proximity to each other not wearing masks on the final day of the Turning Point USA conference at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, Dec. 22, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Contact 5 shared the video with Dr. Terry Adirim, a public health expert.

"Definitely a super-spreader event when you see very large crowds in an enclosed venue without masks," she said. "We need to be concerned that these are people from out of town, out of state, who are likely to go back to their own states and spread infection."

Tyler James traveled to the conference from Albany, New York.

"We all signed the waiver," he said. "We know what we're risking. It's our responsibility when we go home, don't expose it."

Tyler James, attending Turning Point USA conference, Dec. 22, 2020
"We all signed the waiver," Tyler James, who traveled to the Turning Point USA conference from Albany, New York, tells Contact 5. "We know what we're risking. It's our responsibility when we go home, don't expose it."

Ashley Ludwig is from Jacksonville.

"For the most part, like, people aren't wearing masks and stuff, but I think people are being responsible and hopefully washing their hands and doing what they're supposed to," she said.

But an email sent to county commissioners and obtained by Contact 5 seems to show otherwise.

"I work downtown," the author of an email wrote, "and was not happy to see how many of the people at the convention center were waiting in line with no distancing and no masks and also how many were mingling down Clematis (Street) maskless. More restrictions need to be in place."

'More restrictions need to be in place' email to county after Turning Point USA conference, Dec. 22, 2020
An email to the county from someone who works in downtown West Palm Beach expressed concern about the amount of maskless individuals who attended the Turning Point USA conference.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay told Contact 5 that she reported the lack of masks being worn to the county's Emergency Operations Center.

"It's unfortunate that the organizers of Turning Point signed a legal contract acknowledging the mandate and agreeing to enforce it but failed to do so," McKinlay said.

A representative for Commissioner Gregg Weiss also said the commissioner "intends to ask questions and figure out what the county can do about this to prevent it from happening again in the future."

Maskless group of individuals wait in line to attend Turning Point USA conference, Dec. 22, 2020
A maskless group of individuals wait in line on the final day of the Turning Point USA conference at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, Dec. 22, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"Large venues with large auditoriums where hundreds to thousands of people can congregate has no business being open at this stage right now," Adirim said.

Contact 5 also tried to contact the county administrator to ask why the county's mask mandate wasn't enforced at the conference.

A representative referred all inquiries to Spectra, which manages the convention center.

Contact 5 is still waiting on a response from Spectra and Turning Point USA.

READ THE LETTER FROM COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR VERDENIA BAKER TO PALM BEACH COUNTY COMMISSIONERS:

Mayor, Vice Mayor and Members of the Board:

Some of you have been contacted by the media regarding the Turning Point USA conference event at the Convention Center for the last four days. During this time, I have been in constant contact with Dave Anderson, General Manager, of the convention center and was assured extra measures were in place to enforce the mask mandate. As you are aware, the county contracts with Spectra to manage and operate the convention center. Mr. Anderson provided the written briefing below of the activities and measures taken to ensure the safety of the staff and guests at the convention center during this event. Please call me if you have any further questions regarding this matter.

Turning Point Conference-December 19-22

1. The Palm Beach County Convention Center has hosted almost two dozen events across the last several months. All have been executed with a laser-focus on precautionary health and safety measures. A major component of the success of each of those events was a partner/client who valued and honored our policies and procedures regarding cleaning and sanitization and social distancing and PPE. What’s more, earlier this year, the convention center became one of the first in the nation and first in Palm Beach County to earn GBAC Accreditation – the gold standard certification related to COVID-related cleaning and sanitization.

2. For the last three years, Turning Point has been a good partner while hosting their annual summit at the facility.

3. Based on our history together, coupled with meticulous planning and preparation with Turning Point over the last several months to address enhanced COVID protocols – from pre-determined capacity limits and a client preparedness plan to daily temperature checks and mask requirements – we felt confident hosting the event.

4. From the early stages of planning, the PBCCC worked with the Turning Point team to jointly craft a comprehensive strategy, which detailed capacity restrictions, social distancing guidelines, use of PPE and hand sanitizer, and expanded cleaning services in all public areas. This is in addition to the facility’s GBAC certification, which is a gold-standard national recognition for COVID related best practices focused on the health and safety of our employees, guests, partners and community.

5. Existing facility signage stating requirements for masks and social distancing, and staying home if you are sick, were already positioned on the doors and windows at each entry point, as well as throughout the entire facility. Additional signage was added outside the facility reminding attendees that face coverings are “Required For Entry”.

6. We did encounter additional difficulties regarding mask compliance in the general session room when various speakers challenged mask efficacy. However, personnel walked up and down queuing lines informing attendees and staff that masks are required for entry into the facility. Personnel was placed strategically at various points around the building to enforce attendee mask requirements, including: throughout the lobby areas, at the entry point for the Expo and General Session rooms, and roaming within the Expo Area and General Session areas.

7. The Palm Beach County Convention Center staff, along with Turning Point volunteers and staff, were positioned around the facility during the four-day event to diligently prompt guests to wear their masks. While the majority of attendees complied, we doggedly reminded others of the requirement. PBCCC also coordinated with Turning Point personnel to do the following:

i. Turning Point Security Personnel and Staff was to assist with the mask enforcement throughout the facility.

ii. Daily reminders each morning to TP volunteers to enforce the required mask mandate with attendees.

iii. Turning Point Staff would be in position at the entry point to the facility and each room within the facility to assist in monitoring room capacity and mask compliance reminders.

8. Lines were placed at the primary entry point and additional signage was added to the floors encouraging 6-ft. social distancing as attendees waited to register and enter the facility.

9. Daily Temperature checks were administered for each attendee and staff member before they entered the facility each day.

10. Local law enforcement and Turning Point security assisted when needed in approaching individuals about mask compliance. WPB Police Department presence was in place to support the facilities efforts of mask enforcement to assist with those not willing to comply.

11. The capacity for the Turning Point event was less that 25% of total venue capacity. This capacity was strictly enforced throughout the event, which led to a number of attendees not being able to access the facility because the Turning Point registration number exceeded the pre-determined, mutually agreed upon facility capacity. This issue was quickly resolved when the PBCCC and Turning Point teams collaborated to create an outdoor viewing area with Live Streaming of the event so those that could not access the building could still participate.

12. While images of individuals not wearing masks were shared on social media, I can assure you this was not a reflection of the full event. And, what you didn’t see on social media or TV was the many staff members throughout the building that were enforcing or reminding attendees to reposition or put on their masks.

13. The video and pictures from the Vice President's speech on Tuesday are not reflective of the overwhelming effort by the PBCCC staff, local law enforcement and Turning Point staff, and volunteers enforcing the mask mandate and all other safety and sanitization protocols during the event.

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