| Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Your local daily newspaper has contained more than the average share of unsettling news in the past half-year, coming as what sometimes feels like a water-torture drip of details about sickness and job loss. What we don’t always pause to appreciate is our collective good fortune in weathering this dreadful pandemic at a time when communications technology and internet access have made both surviving and thriving more possible than they would have been just a decade or two ago.
The recently reported 9.5% unemployment averages for July in Sarasota and Manatee counties are devastating, yes, and reflect our region’s dependence on a constant supply of visitors. But compared to the hardest-hit spot in Florida — Osceola County, home to Disney World, with a jobless rate of 20.2% — we are fortunate to have developed a relatively diversified and sophisticated business sector, with more opportunities for employees to work remotely.
The term “virtual reality” was coined to describe a computerized simulation of sensory experience. But today most of us inhabit, on a daily basis, a new reality that is increasingly virtual. And as Herald-Tribune reporter Emily Wunderlich showed in her Monday story on strategies that local nonprofits have adopted for delivering social services, our ability to see and hear people we cannot be in the same room with is most assuredly “better than nothing.”
Wunderlich profiled valiant efforts by the Women’s Resource Center, the Child Protection Center and the Early Learning Coalition of Florida’s Heartland to adapt their outreach missions to different communications platforms, touching base with clients in their homes. While the coalition’s executive director, Anne Brouhebent, described such interactions as “not ideal,” this additional contact point will only strengthen community care connections in the long term. In fact, some nonprofit professionals who engage in mental health counseling by phone or video have told us that many clients seem to be more comfortable discussing personal issues in their own familiar surroundings. And because transportation is no longer an issue, participation rates in therapy sessions have actually risen.
Early in the pandemic, we welcomed the move by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to pay doctors for consulting with patients via the internet. This overdue flexibility will result in better, safer access to medical care for elders, and potentially a decrease in unnecessary hospitalizations. And laying the groundwork now for a partial conversion to telehealth will generate meaningful savings, and combat chronic isolation, as the baby boom generation ages.
Technology, it seems, is also — finally — starting to give us a living room view of the mysterious, murky workings of our own state government. While most counties, municipalities and school boards in Florida have long observed the practice of making their meetings available online, both in real time and after the fact, too many important proceedings required citizens to make the long trip to Tallahassee if they wanted to keep an eye on things. If they missed the moment, the only record was usually in the form of written minutes.
But the rise of the virtual meeting, which is making it easier for appointed officials to convene without leaving home, also removes whatever excuse these bodies could come up with for not recording and broadcasting their deliberations. A case in point of local interest: This Wednesday, the Florida Elections Commission will meet to consider an alleged violation related to the 2017 Sarasota City Commission race.
The hearing, involving two Sarasota politicians who lost their races in the recent primary, may offer an interesting look at the shadowy side of campaign financing — which seems to have so few sunny sides these days. For instructions on watching the meeting, set to begin at 8:30 a.m., go to fec.state.fl.us, click on “Meetings,” and select the public notice for August.
The Herald-Tribune Editorial Board