ST. PETERSBURG — Three days before his historic inauguration, Mayor-elect Ken Welch has tested positive for COVID-19.
A grand ceremony was planned for St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor on the steps of City Hall on Thursday. Instead, Welch, who will be the city’s 54th mayor, will be sworn in from his Lakewood Estates home and will give a short speech in a virtual ceremony. A reception was postponed.
Welch tested positive Monday morning using a home kit. A second PCR test later in the day confirmed the result. He was fully vaccinated and received a booster shot in November.
On Thursday, Welch told a Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer to keep their distance during an in-person interview because he was “coming down with something.” A spokesman said Welch took a COVID-19 test on Friday and the result was negative.
This is the second time Welch has contracted the virus. He tested positive with mild symptoms in September. Preston Rudie, his spokesperson, said Welch’s symptoms are “not serious” and he will still take virtual meetings.
In a statement, Welch said he wanted his diagnosis to serve as a reminder to get vaccinated and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
“While this is disappointing, I am incredibly thankful that my current symptoms are not serious, and I keep in my thoughts and prayers all the families who have lost so much more to this pandemic,” he said. “Though we will not be able to celebrate in person, let us keep front of mind the significance of the day — the day that we begin a journey together, as one community in one city, toward inclusive progress. We will have much more to celebrate together in the years to come.”
Welch is expected to begin working from City Hall on Jan. 10. He is expected to announce senior staff members who will join his administration on Wednesday.
Welch was honored Saturday by the St. Petersburg NAACP at Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. The NAACP branch’s president, Esther Eugene, said she has personally tested negative for COVID-19 and has not heard of anyone testing positive.
She said participants had their temperatures checked, wore masks and were socially distanced.
“I don’t anticipate there being any challenges,” Eugene said.
She said she hoped Welch is well and will be healthy and ready for his journey into City Hall. She said the city can come together and celebrate his inauguration when it’s safer.
“This is far bigger than a celebration,” Eugene said. “Yes, we want to personally celebrate our new mayor coming into office as many of us have done for other mayors, but ... we have to respect the times that we’re in.”
Last week, Welch announced the decision to postpone public celebrations for his inauguration and the swearing-in of new City Council members because of a spike in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant. A community reception was planned for 1 p.m. at Williams Park and reception for the mayor and City Council members was planned for Saturday at The Dalí Museum.
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Asked on Thursday if the postponement of celebrations due to the omicron variant cast a pall on his big day, Welch said, “We’ve all, during these last couple of years especially, learned about what’s truly important,” he said. “And so, COVID-19 is our new reality, and we have to adapt to it. Just like we have to adapt to sea level rise and environmental change. And so it’s part of what we have to deal with in 2022 and we’ll do it.”
On Monday, City Council administrative officer Cindy Sheppard announced that three new council members, Richie Floyd, Copley Gerdes and Lisset Hanewicz, and two reelected City Council members will be sworn in outside on the City Hall steps Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
The council will head back inside to hold a vote to certify the council’s new chairperson and vice chairperson. City employees are required to wear masks inside city facilities.
The new council voted Gina Driscoll and Brandi Gabbard to serve as chairperson and vice chairperson, respectively, for 2022. Driscoll won her reelection this year; Gabbard won automatically when her sole opponent dropped out of the race.
The City Council’s swearing-in is also historic: This is the first time four people of color are on the City Council. Floyd is the first Democratic Socialist and Black member elected to the council from north of Central Avenue. Hanewicz is the first Hispanic person elected to City Council.