On August 10, the state of Florida logged 24,753 new COVID-19 cases — the third time in a week that the single-day count had eclipsed the state's already grim record. On that very same Tuesday, at Surfside's monthly commission meeting, the council voted down a measure that would have established the only COVID-19 testing site for its roughly 5,651 residents.
Though the proposed walk-up testing site would not have cost the town any money, the five-person council rejected it in a 2-2 vote, with Vice Mayor Tina Paul and Commissioner Eliana R. Salzhauer voting in favor of the site, which was previously proposed by Commissioner Charles Kesl, the liaison to Surfside's COVID-19 task force. Since he was on a voluntary leave of absence at the time, Kesl did not cast a vote. Mayor Charles Burkett and Commissioner Nelly Velásquez opposed, later telling New Times they feared the testing site would bring more sick people into their town and put residents at risk.
"This shouldn't even need to be on the agenda, it's common sense," Salzhauer says of her vote to approve the testing site. "It's jaw-dropping disbelief that I'm sitting up there with people that are still drinking the COVID conspiracy Kool-Aid with what this country has been through."
New Times obtained email exchanges between commissioners about the potential testing site that reveal a remarkable degree of infighting and consternation among the elected officials.
On August 13, three days after the testing site failed to pass, a private citizen emailed the commission to clarify a recent decision concerning an unrelated traffic issue.
Kesl responded to the individual a little more than a week later, at 1:46 a.m. on August 22. He noted that he didn't know how to address the resident's traffic concern. In a seemingly unrelated tangent, he rebuked the commission on their rejection of the testing site he'd proposed.
"Members of the Commission often love to tinker with things they have no or little knowledge of or expertise in to make educated decisions," Kesl wrote. "Did you know the manager's consent agenda included a free COVID walk-up testing tent run by professionals that would have been at Town Hall parking lot?"
Kesl went on to detail his initial proposal for the walk-up site, which had been outlined in a July memo provided to the commission and later obtained by New Times. (In it, Kesl outlines that the site would have been free for residents and involved little to no physical contact between the person being tested and on-site staff.)
"The testing tent went from idea as prevention of resurgence to necessity and critical due to resurgence. The Mayor and Commissioner Velásquez voted against safe, fast, simple, convenient, free to us and Surfside COVID testing," Kesl wrote in his email to the resident who'd asked about the traffic issue. "I can tell you this is an embarrassment for the Town, and worse than the others which were about drama and personalities, not life and death."
At 2:29 a.m., a little less than an hour after he pushed send, Kesl forwarded his reply to the town clerk, who then at his request distributed the email to the rest of the commission that afternoon.
The following morning, on August 23, Commissioner Velásquez put her two cents in, responding directly to Kesl and including her colleagues on the reply. She cited "freedom of choice," a popular phrase often cited by the alt-right to defend the decision to not take precautions against COVID-19.
"You are not God," part of her response reads. "Like I always say if you are fearful of covid the safest place is your home. You think that bringing sick people to our town 'just to know' is the right idea well you are wrong. Bringing a covid test center to our town 'just to know' if they are sick or not is so irresponsible. At this point People know what they have to do to stay safe and we are not here to infringe on people [sic] rights. Freedom of choice must be defended at all cost [and] that is what our soldiers have fight [sic] for since the beginning of our beloved country."
Velásquez told New Times via email yesterday that she stands by her vote to reject the testing site for her constituents.
"Our residents don’t support a testing center either, as there was several residents at the August commission meeting and not one resident got up to defend the idea," she wrote. "We have many elderly residents that are most at risk. I don’t think it’s responsible to bring potentially sick people to our town 'just to know' as Commissioner Kesl stated was his motivation for the testing center."
Kesl did not return calls and text messages from New Times requesting comment.
Mayor Burkett tells New Times that he had a recent conversation with Kesl, in which he reportedly told Kesl that he would be open to discussing the idea of the COVID testing site again, but that it would need to be on the outskirts of town if the proposal is going to earn his approval.
"My concern about COVID testing in Surfside is that it also brings in people from outside of Surfside who may be carrying the virus," Burkett says. "It puts our seniors at risk of being in the same vicinity at the same time, and potentially making the situation worse."