Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells was at the Tampa event Friday
Florida sheriffs who had attended a conference this week with a COVID-19-infected colleague met Friday afternoon with President Donald Trump.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood reported his positive test just hours before more than a dozen other sheriffs stood with Trump on the Tampa International Airport tarmac.
Chitwood had attended the Florida Sheriff’s Association conference earlier this week in Bonita Springs. Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott, Attorney General Ashley Moody and law enforcement officers from around the state were also at the conference.
On Friday night, the Florida Department of Corrections reported that Secretary Mark Inch, who attended the conference, and Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon had tested positive.
Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno, who hosted the conference, stood behind Trump along with 14 other sheriffs as Trump praised them and announced he had received “dozens” of their endorsements. Neither Trump nor the sheriffs wore masks. Two of the sheriffs said they had been rapid-tested for COVID-19 before meeting with Trump.
The crowd of several hundred who were close-packed into the front of the holding pen on the tarmac Friday were almost uniformly maskless, according to White House press pool reports. They stood about 15 yards away from the president.
Trump spoke around 4 p.m. after exiting Air Force One and vowed to support the sheriffs amid calls for police reform in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“As long as I’m president, I will never defund your police,” Trump said with a line of sheriffs standing behind him.
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey and Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco thanked Trump for his unwavering support of law enforcement as they endorsed his reelection.
“In my view, there’s only one candidate for president in 2020 that even understands what law and order means, and that is why we are all standing here today, Mr. President, in support of you,” Ivey said.
Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells was at the Tampa event Friday but was “socially distanced from all the others and wearing a mask while attending meetings there today,” according to a spokesman. Wells had been “rapid tested for COVID,” with negative results, “which cleared him to be with the president,” the spokesman said.
DeSantis had attended this week’s conference but was not on the tarmac Friday. However, he was scheduled to attend a Friday roundtable on storm preparedness with Trump. Cody McCloud, a spokesperson with the governor’s office, said DeSantis took quarantine precautions seriously at the conference, but there was no indication he interacted with Chitwood there.
Nanette Schimpf, a spokesperson for the Florida Sheriff’s Association, confirmed Chitwood did attend the conference but said many of the events were canceled. She said Friday’s campaign event was not associated with the Florida Sheriff’s Association.
The association estimates an average of 530 people normally attend the summer conference, which is one of its biggest events. But because of the pandemic, this year’s was far smaller.
“Since this was a smaller business meeting, it was shortened, and attendance was reduced by 75%,” Schimpf said in a text.
Chitwood, who was not in Tampa on Friday, told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that at the Bonita Springs conference he had interacted with four or five people on the dais and left the event after giving his speech.
Chitwood said he intentionally sat in the back of a large room and didn’t go near anybody. He said some people in the conference room were wearing masks, which were optional in the ballroom. But he said there was probably about 12 feet between each person and he didn’t wear a mask there.
It’s unknown how many sheriffs attended the conference, but no others have reported any symptoms, Schimpf said.
“I don’t know of anyone else who is sick or feeling ill,” she said Friday afternoon.
But in a late Friday news release, the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed that Secretary Inch and Deputy Secretary Dixon had tested positive.
Inch had been experiencing “mild symptoms” for about 24 hours following his return from the conference, according to the news release, which added that both Inch and Dixon are self-isolating. The release did not make clear if Dixon attended the conference, and a call to the department was not returned.
“Trace back measures have been conducted and individuals who were in close contact with Secretary Inch and Deputy Secretary Dixon in recent days have been informed of their positive status. These individuals have been encouraged to take proper precautions and undergo testing,” the release said.
“At this time, the location of exposure to the virus … has not been determined.”
Photos from various sheriff’s office social media pages show representation at the conference from at least Flagler, Gilchrest, Hernando, Indian River, Manatee, Martin, St. Lucie, Polk and Wakulla counties.
St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar told the News-Journal that he spoke with Chitwood at the conference but was not feeling any symptoms and does not plan to quarantine.
Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk attended the conference but was not in close proximity to Chitwood, spokesperson Karie Partington said.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was at the conference.
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw did not attend the conference or travel to Tampa for the president’s arrival, a spokesperson said. Other sheriffs not at the conference included Nocco of Pasco County, Hillsborough County’s Chad Chronister and Leon County’s Walt McNeil, according to spokespersons.
Marceno, Lee County’s sheriff who hosted this week’s conference, said Friday that it normally would have included sheriffs from all 67 Florida counties. But Marceno described the meeting as a “skeleton crew of sheriffs because of COVID.”
The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa, where the conference was held, had a mandatory mask policy inside. Organizers set up the meeting to keep attendees at a distance, and tables that normally would seat 10 or 12 people only had one or two people, Marceno said.
“Many tables were empty,” Marceno said. “They cut everything back and everything was social distanced. It was real strict.”
Marceno said he knows Chitwood but doesn’t recall if he was in close proximity to him at the meeting.
“I can’t say yes or no,” he said. “I can’t remember, to be honest.”
But Marceno said he was tested for COVID-19 before he met with Trump on Friday. Marceno stood directly behind Trump during the presentation on the tarmac after Trump exited Air Force One.
“I literally just got tested and I was negative,” he said in a phone interview after Trump’s speech, noting that at the sheriffs meeting, “I wore a mask. I washed my hands. I social distanced.”
Because the Lee County Sheriff’s Office hosted the meeting, there were other agency members at the meeting beside Marceno. He said he didn’t have any plans to mandate any additional precautionary orders for those members beyond the COVID-19 protocols the agency already has in place.
“If someone said they didn’t feel well, absolutely,” Marceno said. “Other than that, we move on.”
Contributing to this report: Ryan Mills of The News-Press and Naples Daily News, Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon of Florida Today, Carlos Muñoz of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Jim Rosica of the USA TODAY NETWORK—Florida Capital Bureau and Frank Fernandez and Matt Bruce of the Daytona Beach News-Journal.