TALLAHASSEE — Five people who attended a Florida Sheriffs Association meeting last week have tested positive for COVID-19, and top state elected officials who appeared at the meeting have received a warning about their potential exposure to the virus.
The July 27 meeting at a Bonita Springs hotel brought together 60 people from across the state, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls and sheriffs from various parts of Florida.
The association “exceeded” social distancing guidelines at the event, Nanette Schimpf, a spokeswoman for the association, told The News Service of Florida on Monday. Face masks were required at the meeting, each table sat a single person and they were 10 feet apart, and hotel staff cleaned the area every hour, she said.
Two days later, though, an unidentified attendee notified the Florida Sheriffs Association of a positive test for COVID-19, Schimpf said.
By Friday, Inch, Department of Corrections Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon and Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood all disclosed that they too had tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz tested positive for the deadly respiratory illness.
Although the five attendees tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after the law-enforcement meeting, it remains to be determined exactly where each got infected.
Inch began experiencing mild symptoms a day after attending the meeting and after doing a tour of Columbia Correctional Institution, where 1,300 inmates have tested positive. He tested positive for the virus on Thursday. Dixon, one of his top lieutenants, was asymptomatic and tested positive for the virus on the same day as Inch.
Inch and Dixon are self-isolating and have not required hospitalization, the Florida Department of Corrections said in a news release Friday night.
“Trace back measures have been conducted and individuals who were in close contact with Secretary Inch and Deputy Secretary Dixon in recent days have been notified of their positive status. These individuals have been encouraged to take proper precautions and undergo testing,” department officials said.
Chitwood announced his diagnosis via Twitter on Friday. At first, he said he was experiencing “symptoms on the mild side.” But the symptoms got worse over the weekend.
“Last night was rough,” he tweeted on Saturday. “Definitely feeling the effects, but pushing through.”
Schultz, the newly elected president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, disclosed he was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Monday. Two other Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office employees, who did not attend the July 27 meeting, have also tested positive, Schimpf said.
Schimpf said the association notified all attendees of the meeting that someone at the event had tested positive as soon as the first unidentified person called the association on Wednesday. As of Monday, the association only knew of five attendees who had tested positive.
DeSantis and his staff were among the people who were notified about their potential exposure to the virus, Schimpf said. DeSantis made an 8:30 a.m. appearance at the July 27 meeting, according to his public schedule.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and it remains unclear whether he came into close contact with Inch, Dixon or Chitwood.
But speaking to reporters on Monday, the governor said he was tested for COVID-19 two days ago and suggested his test result had been negative.
“I’m tested regularly, and I don’t have or have not had any symptoms,” DeSantis said. “The number of times I’ve been tested has been pretty significant, and I’ve had my temperature checked probably 100 times in the last few months.”
Moody was tested and received negative results as soon as the Florida Sheriffs Association notified her about the potential exposure, Moody spokeswoman Lauren Schenone Cassedy told The News Service of Florida in an email Monday.
“She was not in contact with Secretary Inch or Deputy Corrections Dixon but did briefly speak with Sheriff Chitwood,” Cassedy said.
Sprowls said in a text message to the News Service on Monday that he is “feeling fine.”
“I have taken precautions in the days that followed,” the Palm Harbor Republican said, without offering specifics.
Schimpf said the association’s meeting was held in person, in part, because confidential information was discussed.
“We can’t accomplish everything that needs to be done via a Zoom call,” she said. “Sheriffs only get together once or twice a year to receive valuable training, discuss confidential topics, current public safety trends and best practices, as well as legislative priorities.”