The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is asking St. Johns County to use some of its federal CARES Act money to fund a COVID-19 testing location in the rural town of Hastings, home to many of the county’s farmers.
But after hearing from a local farmer on Tuesday morning, the three St. Johns County Commissioners in attendance seemed to be against providing $1.2 million for staffing the testing site through the end of the year. The state would provide the rest of the funding for equipment.
“It doesn't make sense to me,” Chris Barnes, a fifth-generation farmer in St. Johns County, told the commissioners.
Barnes said during his harvest season, which runs from December to June, he employs around 60 immigrant workers as part of the federal H2A visa program that allows them to work in the U.S. temporarily.
Barnes said his farm won’t see a large number of workers until next harvest season, after the state-proposed site would be set to close.
“You'll have maybe 20 to 30 H2A workers from now until the end of November,” Barnes said. “That's over $5,000 a person even if we were at a peak, and we won't have any abundance of people in here until December.”
Barnes said rapid testing for farm workers would be more helpful than the often multi-day turnaround at a state-run site.
Barnes said, “That rapid is the biggest thing. I mean, when 60 people are working together closely, if we have a problem we need to know immediately.”
St. Johns County Commission Chair Jeb Smith asked about how Barnes has been affected by the coronavirus.
“Slow is an understatement,” Barnes said. “When they mandated the shutdown to the restaurants, that's probably 50- to 60% of where my product goes, and it just took a hit on everyone.”
Barnes also had harsh words for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
“You have an ag commissioner that has not been in our area whatsoever, nor their staff,” Barnes said. “They should have put boots on the ground, they should have come and talked to the farmers in St. Johns County before they throw $1.2 million at something to make it look like you're doing something that doesn't help or fix the problem. It's irresponsible.”
Ultimately, Smith said Barnes’ testimony was enough to convince him that the COVID-19 testing site in Hastings isn’t needed, and if farmers wanted to get their workers tested, they can go to Flagler Hospital, which is currently testing at only half of its capacity.
“There's plenty of room there to do that with the already approved funding,” Smith said.
The commissioners didn’t take an official vote on the state’s recommendation.
Commissioner Jeremiah Blocker was not at the meeting, and Commissioner Paul Wauldron is still recovering from a severe battle with COVID-19.
Sky Lebron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.