Did a Florida City Cut Residents’ Power During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

A confrontation between officials in Lake Worth Beach, Florida drew attention after a member of the local city commission criticized his colleagues of not taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

“This is a banana republic, is what you’re turning this place into with your so-called leadership,” Commissioner Omari Hardy told Mayor Pam Triolo during the commission’s March 17 2020 meeting. “We cut people’s utilities this week and made them pay — with what could have been their last check — to turn their lights off in a global health pandemic. But you don’t care about that.”

Footage of the argument was covered by news outlets in the area, and was also shared on several social media platforms.

The argument erupted after the conclusion of the meeting, during which Triolo granted City Manager Michael Bornstein emergency powers during the outbreak. Hardy criticized the mayor and Bornstein after she cut debate on the matter. He also accused Triolo and the rest of the commission of ignoring his request to hold an emergency meeting on the disease (a novel coronavirus strain known as COVID-19) a week earlier.

Hardy also told a local news station, WPBF-TV, that electricity and water were cut off for 52 customers who had fallen behind on their payments. An additional 53 customers, he said, were slated to suffer the same penalty the day after the contentious meeting.

Bornstein confirmed the inital rash of service cuts and added that the process was carried out automatically for customers who had failed to pay their bill for 72 days. But those customers, he said, would be allowed to resume service without cost. He also promised that no service would be cut while the pandemic is unfolding, though late payments would be due in full after the crisis passes.

“We don’t want people stressing during this period,” Bornstein told WPBF. “It’s stressful enough. We’re actually trying to find ways to make people calm down.”

In a Facebook post published three days after his argument with Triolo, Hardy said he did not regret confronting her.

“We could have directed the city manager to stop shutoffs last week, when I requested an emergency meeting for exactly that purpose,” he said. “Only Commissioner Robinson wanted to meet. The rest said it was unnecessary. So this week, dozens of families had their lights shut off, and my colleagues didn’t want to have any discussion about it, and I lost my cool.”