Palm Beach officials believe that a vigorous government response, along with cooperation of the business community, civic groups and most residents, helped to minimize the number of coronavirus cases on the island.

They have been battle-tested by hurricanes many times over the years, but this was the first time town leaders were confronted with a global health emergency.


They knew from the start that they had to respond aggressively to the COVID-19 threat because the town’s generally older and well-traveled population was especially vulnerable.


On March 16, the town became the first municipality in Palm Beach County to announce it would impose a daily curfew from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., and close its public beaches.




RELATED: Coronavirus Florida: Palm Beach extends curfew to May 12.


On March 17, The Breakers, Palm Beach’s grand dame of resorts, announced the hotel, and all of its related businesses and restaurants, would close for at least three weeks (it has since postponed its reopening to May 22).


RELATED: Coronavirus Florida: Breakers extends initial closure to May 8.


That was about 10 days before the county ordered all hotels to stop taking guest reservations.


"Getting ahead of that was a bold move on their part," Mayor Gail Coniglio said of The Breakers.


On March 20, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order requiring all non-critical retail and commercial establishments to close their doors.


"This was new territory," Coniglio said. "But we were way ahead of the curve in planning and protective measures and public education to safeguard the community. I think it’s been amazing, the cooperative effort we have had from our residents, businesses, police, fire and medical personnel, all of which was critical to compressing our new cases of COVID-19."


As of Thursday had 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with two deaths.


RELATED: Coronavirus Florida: Virus claims second Palm Beach resident.


"I would say 90 percent of our residents have taken this seriously and stayed at home, protecting themselves and others," Coniglio said.


Regular updates from Town Hall, via the town’s website, kept people informed. Town Manager Kirk Blouin repeatedly sought to drive home the importance of following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing, handwashing and other protective measures.


"Our lines of communication, from the beginning, were strategic," Coniglio said. "A real key to our involvement was the outreach to federal, state, county and health department officials to provide the best analysis on reducing the infection rate."


Town Council President Margaret Zeidman said public education by the town, which began Feb. 26, led to a groundswell in the public consciousness.


By mid-March, the town’s roster of charitable events for the remaining season evaporated, seemingly overnight.


"Luncheons were canceled, dinners were canceled, a lot of money was lost, but we did the right thing and have stayed very steady," Zeidman said. "We did it as a community, all together — the hotels, the Breakers, the [Palm Beach] Civic Association, Citizens’ Association [of Palm Beach], all the stores, you go right down the line, everyone was getting on the same page."


Had the social events not been canceled, the virus would have spread like wildfire among the town’s elderly population, Zeidman said.


"You would have had 200 to 250 people at these events … people in their 70s sitting at tables, elbow to elbow, with each other. There would be a lot of people sick. We would have had much higher mortality," Zeidman said.


The transition hasn’t been without some rough spots.


Early on, town officials criticized Publix for failing to enforce social distancing among employees and shoppers, and even urged residents to shop online and stay out of the store.


Publix has implemented a number of safety measures, including installing plexiglass shields in the checkout lanes and floor markers to encourage people to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from one another. One of the store’s employee later tested positive for COVID-19.


RELATED: Coronavirus Florida: Palm Beach Publix employee tests positive.


As schools and businesses closed, people were suddenly working from home while their children were home from school or college. More and more people took to the popular Lake Trail for fresh air and exercise. But that led to overcrowding and an outcry that pedestrians and bicyclists weren’t keeping a safe distance.


RELATED: Coronavirus Florida: Palm Beach tightens restrictions on Lake Trail use.


The town responded by limiting trail use to walkers and runners from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day — a move welcomed by many but resented and criticized, sometimes harshly, by others.


"In some cases it was applauded and in other cases it went over like a lead balloon," Blouin said.


On March 30, a town emergency order strongly urged residents to shelter at home until further notice.


Also, on March 30, Citadel Securities founder Ken Griffin opened a trading floor for his firm at the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach in the wake of the pandemic, setting off criticisms from residents of neighboring South End residential buildings over alleged violations of social distancing rules.


RELATED: Coronavirus Florida: Zoning an issue for Ken Griffin’s Palm Beach trading floor, but no citations issued.


But town officials said that, apart from a possible zoning violation, police had investigated numerous complaints and found no evidence of any legal violations at the resort.


By the end of April, town officials were shifting their focus to the early stages of reopening. In line with a county order, the public parks were reopened on April 29, followed by the Par 3 Golf Course and public tennis facilities over the next two days.


But officials stressed that the CDC guidelines for social distancing, frequent handwashing and the wearing of masks, remain in place for the foreseeable future and must be practiced by all.


"It requires a critical balance — to compress the infection rate and begin a partial return to what we will see as a new reality or new normal," Coniglio said.


The greater challenge will be figuring out how to reopen hotels, restaurants and other businesses in a new world of masked patrons who must remember to keep everyone they see beyond an arm’s length.


The nation’s economy has been flipped upside down, with 30 million Americans having filed for unemployment, and state governments facing staggering financial shortfalls.


Toojay’s, the popular deli chain that debuted in Palm Beach nearly 40 years ago, said filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Wednesday, citing the economic impact of the pandemic.


RELATED: Toojay’s files for bankruptcy, citing fallout from COVID-19.


This new economic climate, coupled with an ongoing international global health emergency, has landed the town, nation and world in uncharted waters.


"It’s two pronged — protecting the community and getting people back to work," Coniglio said. "It will affect everyone: individuals, businesses, governments."