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Worries about the spread of the novel coronavirus have forced elections offices in Tampa Bay and elsewhere in Florida to search for last-minute volunteers to replace anxious poll workers while also shutting down numerous voting sites before Tuesday’s presidential preference primary.
While the elections offices say they have backup plans, the ever-changing and developing news about the virus’ spread in Florida is causing logistical headaches and raising questions not only about next week’s primary but about what could happen if the virus threat persists through November’s presidential election.
Since the state announced the first coronavirus case in Pasco County late Tuesday, that county has been “hemorrhaging" poll workers, said Brian Corley, Pasco’s supervisor of elections.
Pasco’s 30 coronavirus-related dropouts coupled with other poll workers dropping out means his office has largely burned through its reserves of election workers, Corley said. His office has reached out to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office to ask if it had employees to fill the void.
And Corley said he’s also reached out to the state to inquire about whether Gov. Ron DeSantis would consider alternatives — such as forming large, centralized voting centers if Pasco or other counties have trouble finding enough poll workers.
“You have to think of every possible scenario of what you can do and how you could pivot,” Corley said.
The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office said Wednesday that about 60 poll workers out of about 1,680 have dropped out due to coronavirus concerns.
Spokesman Dustin Chase stressed that there is no shortage of poll workers. He said that’s partly because Pinellas reached out to county workers last week for help getting more poll workers so it could have enough trained in reserve in case of last-minute no-shows.
As of Wednesday morning, about 40 county employees had recently signed on to be trained as poll workers, Chase said. Some have been assigned jobs on Tuesday while others are on standby.
The Pinellas elections office also said Wednesday it was moving polling places for nine precincts that had originally been located at eight different assisted-living facilities because of concerns that voters and poll workers would imperil older residents more susceptible to the virus.
Gov. Ron DeSantis called voting sites at assisted-living facilities “problematic” during a news conference Wednesday. He said his administration is recommending that if there is a polling facility in one of these facilities, the residents can vote there, but the general public should be allowed to vote at a nearby precinct.
Older people and people with health issues are considered at greater risk for dying if they get coronavirus, early data has indicated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said nursing homes are at the highest risk of being affected by the virus, given the age of the population and the close quarters in which the residents live. It’s recommended that such facilities discourage visitors and screen people coming in.
Chase said voters in those precincts will be re-routed to the next-closest polling places for Tuesday’s presidential preference primary election. The furthest distance between new and old polling places is 2.6 miles.
Chase said affected voters will be contacted via mail, phone calls and email and that election workers will be stationed at the eight original polling locations to give voters directions and information.
Chase also said his office is discussing accommodations to allow residents of those facilities to still vote if they can’t make it to the new polling site.
State law allows elections officials to make temporary changes of polling places in the event of an emergency.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough County’s elections office was notified Wednesday that one of its polling locations, the Sun Towers retirement and rehabilitation community, was no longer suitable as a polling place, said Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.
Kramer said voters will be moved to a different polling location about a mile away and that signs and other communications should help voters find the correct location. Kramer said about 60 voters had been forecast to vote there on Tuesday.
Pinellas and Hillsborough aren’t alone in dealing with these issues. Ohio, which has its presidential primary the same day as Florida, moved more than 100 polling sites that had been located at senior-living facilities this week.
Kramer said her office has been working to reach out to polling places to make sure “everyone feels comfortable about us being there” and said she’s heard no other concerns.
But she noted that her office has backup plans in case something happens at the last minute with a precinct. Those plans include “pop-up precincts” — vehicles that are equipped with a tent, privacy voting booths, a ballot scanner and other equipment that can be used to put together a precinct on the fly if needed.
Hillsborough has not had any significant numbers of poll workers drop out due to the coronavirus, she said.
Kramer also noted that early voting in Hillsborough County is still ongoing through Sunday, and that voters can still choose to pick up mail-in ballots in person and return them by 7 p.m. primary night.
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee tweeted a reminder Tuesday that voters can designate someone to pick up mail-in ballots for them by filling out an affidavit.
Voters or their designees can pick up ballots on Election Day by signing an affidavit that there’s an emergency keeping them from going to their polling place.
Local elections officials also said they are also taking other safety precautions in light of the virus, such as having sanitizing wipes for every polling location and providing each poll worker with their own hand sanitizer.
Corley, of Pasco County, said beginning Wednesday, voters will only be provided privacy sleeves for their ballots if they request one. He said “secrecy sleeves are germ magnets” and that, since the presidential preference primary ballot is only one side of one ballot, voters will be encouraged to hold their ballots upside-down for privacy.
It’s still unclear just how large a threat the coronavirus will be to the state or the nation or world. And it’s unclear how big of an effect it will have on the 2020 elections through the primary season and beyond.
Concerns about the coronavirus have already forced campaign and debate changes and cancellations, including the cancellation of an AFL-CIO presidential forum that was supposed to be held in Orlando before Florida’s primary.
Presidential contender Joe Biden canceled a scheduled visit to Tampa on Thursday, and Sunday’s televised Democratic presidential candidate debate will have no live audience to applaud or react to candidates’ comments.
The coronavirus is just one more thing elections officials in Florida and elsewhere have to prepare for in this 2020 election cycle. Before the coronavirus outbreak, elections officials had already been working to prepare for a number of issues, including cybersecurity issues and misinformation campaigns.
“Elections administration in itself is stressful, but we’re also in Florida. Being the largest battleground state, there’s a huge spotlight on our elections,” said Corley, the Pasco supervisor of elections. “Then you throw in cybersecurity issues ... then throw in coronavirus. What’s next, locusts?”
Here are the changes being made to polling places in Pinellas County:
- Precinct 201: No longer at Addington Place at College Harbor. Voters instead should go to Pinellas Community Church, 5501 31st St. S., St. Petersburg.
- Precinct 342: No longer at Elmcroft of Pinecrest. Voters instead should go to Christ Presbyterian Church, 3115 Dryer Ave., Largo.
- Precinct 529: No longer at Mease Manor. Voters instead should go to Dunedin Assembly of God Church, 885 Lake Haven Road, Dunedin.
- Precincts 256 and 264: No longer at Palm Garden of Largo. Voters instead should go to Starkey Road Baptist Church, 8800 Starkey Road, Seminole.
- Precinct 629: No longer at Stratford Court of Palm Harbor. Voters instead should go to Bethel Lutheran Church, 3166 N. McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater.
- Precinct 326: No longer at The Barrington Retirement Community. Voters instead should go to Largo Feed Store, 295 Central Park Drive, Largo.
- Precinct 102: No longer at Westminster Suncoast. Voters instead should go to Bay Vista Recreation Center, 7000 4th St. S., St. Petersburg.
- Precinct 631: No longer at Coral Oaks. Voters instead should go to Highland Lakes Club, 3300 MacGregor Drive, Palm Harbor.
Here is the Hillsborough County polling place change:
- Precinct 906 will no longer be at Sun Towers. Voters at that precinct will now go to the Sun City Center Florida Room, 1009 N. Pebble Beach Blvd., Sun City Center.
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