Beach Hibernation Eases

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Restaurants, Hotels Open

The Island Sand Paper is back with a print issue after a two month absence and the biggest news in our community remains the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee County announced its first three positive cases on March 7, but the first effect felt on Fort Myers Beach was when the Fort Myers Beach Town Council voted on March 13 to cancel the Shrimp Festival on March 14 & 15 and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 16. Those two actions sent shock waves through the community and focused everyone’s attention on the pandemic. Within a couple of weeks, Fort Myers Beach would see precautions taken that closed beaches, hotels and restaurants right in the heart of season, actions that were inconceivable just days before.

Less than a week after cancelling Shrimp Festival, Town Council would close the beaches and all public beach access parking on March 19, with Lee County following suit the same day. About six weeks later, on April  28, the town would open their beaches to town residents for limited hours for exercise purposes only. The next day, April 29, the county would throw open their beach parks and parking areas. By Saturday, May 2, the town would reopen their beaches. All openings came with cautions that social distancing guidelines were to be followed at all times.

Lodging Confusion

Governor Ron DeSantis issued a “Safer-at-Home” order on April 1 limiting non-essential activities and businesses through April 30. Before that, on March 27, he banned all short-term vacation rentals, originally for 2 weeks, then extending it indefinitely. The Town of Fort Myers Beach would meet March 30 and ban all lodging rentals for 90 days, later changing it to June 26, and then May 15.

Confusion would reign as short term (30 days or less) vacation rental managers attempted to sort out the town’s ban vs. the state ban. The town’s ban included a provision that there be no cancellation or change fees charged.

On May 15, motels, hotels, resorts and time-shares within the Town of Fort Myers Beach can begin accepting reservations and guests as the town’s ban expires. Vacation rentals of condos and homes of a month or less, may not, unless the Governor releases his statewide ban on all vacation rentals.

Counties and municipalities can be more restrictive than statewide rules, but can’t be less restrictive, hence the town’s ban on all accommodations from March 30 – May 15. Their more restrictive ban expires May 15, but the statewide ban on vacation rentals will still be in effect, unless the Governor removes it. As of press time, there was no sign of the Governor doing that. The town has provided several statements on their website regarding the town’s lodging ban.

Restaurants & Salons Open

The Governor began his efforts to reopen Florida on May 4, when he allowed restaurants to open indoor dining spaces at 25% capacity and allowed outdoor dining so long as tables remain six feet apart. Retail businesses could reopen with 25% capacity. A week later, on May 11, he would allow barbershops, hair and nail salons to open drawing cheers from the shaggy population. The two hardest hit counties, Miami-Dade and Broward, have been excluded from the Governor’s Phase 1 reopening plans.

Beach Hibernation Eases-Restaurants and Salons Open-Fort Myers beach news
Ice cream in Times Square in the shade

Each step of reopening the state has come with the, by now, well-known physical distancing guidelines of 6 feet separation, masks if you’ll be in a situation where maintaining 6 feet separation is impossible and cautions that those most vulnerable to infection (over 65 or with underlying medical conditions) remain at home and limit their interactions.

Most restaurants on Fort Myers Beach opened the week of May 4, with others planning to open in the next few weeks. Most of them continue to offer carryout for those who are not ready to dine in. With the beaches open, weekends have been seen beach crowds, full parking lots and plenty of boaters taking to the water.

Testing

DeSantis opened the first no-referral, no symptoms needed, drive-through, free COVID-19 test site in Lee County at CenturyLink Sports Complex on May 4. Inundated with county residents looking for a test the first few days, the state increased the capacity and it is now able to test 750 people per day. On Wednesday, May 13, it reached that number and closed early. The test site is open form 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the gates close, each day. Testing is for those over age 18 only. A photo I.D. is required, as is a face mask. Participants are asked not to line up their cars outside the complex gate.

With beaches, hotels and restaurants open now on Fort Myers Beach, local businesses are hoping to see an increase in customers after weeks of closed doors and empty streets. Their message: the beach is open!