Accommodations Open May 15
On Monday morning, the new Town Council that took office on Monday, April 6, began the process of reversing the decisions implemented by its predecessor panel in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, to start the reopening of the Town of Fort Myers Beach. At a virtual Special Meeting on Monday, April 27, Council voted to allow limited beach access for Town residents only to walk, run, bicycle and walk their dogs on Town-owned public beaches starting Tuesday, April 28, from 7 to 10 a.m., though they opted against allowing swimming. Residents must wear a mask, carry identification showing FMB residency and follow social distancing guidelines. Towels and beach gear like chairs, umbrellas or coolers are not allowed. Town-owned beach access parking remains closed. Council also voted to allow hotels, short term rentals and other accommodations to take reservations and accept guests beginning May 15, a full six weeks before the June 26 date set by the previous council, that had said the date would be revisited.
Council could take no action to reopen restaurants other than for carryout and delivery, along with bars and other non-essential businesses, until the expiration of Executive Orders from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on either Thursday, April 30 or Friday, May 8, unless he extends those prior to those dates. This was the fifth Special Council Meeting over COVID-19 conditions since March 13, but the first for this version of Town Council.
Public Comment drew a mixture of 34 residents, non-residents, business and property owners submitting written suggestions. Of these, 26 favored lifting restrictions in some way, such as a total reopening of the beach, allowing beach access with limitations, opening the beach to Town residents only, not allowing beach chairs or towels, and opening them only with appropriate social distancing, among other ideas. Eight people encouraged Council to maintain beach and business closures that resulted in just eight Fort Myers Beach coronavirus cases to date, saying that now is not the time to discontinue such effective measures.
Council began discussing the four Emergency Declarations issued between March 19 through April 3. It started with the original March 19 Emergency Declaration, beginning with Section D that stated that “all restaurants and other like entertainment facilities and businesses will adhere to the latest State Executive Orders mandated by Governor DeSantis.” After a lengthy discussion on how to reopen Fort Myers Beach restaurants, Town Attorney John Herin, Jr. reminded Council that while the “Safer-at-Home” Executive Order from Governor DeSantis expires on April 30, his Executive Order to close bars and restaurants remains in place through May 8, unless he extends it, therefore Council does not have the authority to reopen restaurants until after that date.
Mayor Ray Murphy reported that he is meeting with a local Task Force of Fort Myers Beach hoteliers and restauranteurs who are compiling their recommendations through the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, and those should be ready for Council and the community to review by Thursday, April 30. “We are not telling these people how to run their businesses when they come back,” said Murphy. “They are telling us the best practices so when the time is right, they can do it properly.” “I like that idea,” Council member Jim Atterholt stated. “They have national lawyers and associations with extensive expertise who can come up with those best practices.” Council member Bill Veach said he would like to hear “the opinion of the medical people and not just the business community before May 9, as well as from the Lee County Commissioners and perhaps the Sanibel Mayor.” Murphy added, “This Town Council or the previous one had very little to do with the closing down of island businesses.”
Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros noted, “Lee County Commissioners meet Tuesday, April 28, and Governor DeSantis’ Executive ‘Safer-at-Home’ Order expires on April 30, so perhaps the Town should have another Special Meeting on Friday, May 1, at 9 a.m., after all the turning of those gears that are independent of Fort Myers Beach.” Council unanimously voted to do so.
Limited Beach Time
Atterholt experienced technical issues with the virtual meeting, so after a 15-mnute break, he returned via telephone participation for the balance of the session.
Council next discussed Section E of the original Declaration of Emergency Regulations that said: “All beaches and beach accesses in the Town are closed. No persons or activities are permitted on the beach and within the Environmentally Critical Zone.”
“I think the way to go is with a limited opening for Fort Myers Beach residents only, so that we can see how it goes,” offered Hosafros. “A lot of people are chomping at the bit, so residents can exercise on the public portion of the beach below the mean high tide line from 7 to 9 a.m., with all social distancing rules applied. Dog walking will not be permitted and parking will still close. You cannot sit, recline, or bring beach towels or chairs.” Atterholt, however, advocated allowing dog walking and opening the beach from “sunrise to sunset rather than a small window; that will still close the beach 50% of the time.”
Veach said he was “not comfortable with our staff checking residency; that is a risk not necessary or worth taking. I love dogs but that is a call to socialize more than people walking briskly or running on the beach.” The Town Attorney questioned the legality of only allowing Town residents on the beach. “The real enforcement,” countered Atterholt, “will be when large groups gather together and violate the social distancing rule, and not whether non-residents can come onto the island. A shorter timespan will discourage people from driving to the island, so in the spirit of compromise, I suggest perhaps 7 to 10 a.m., to avoid the clustering of people. We can come back on Friday and see if we want to add an additional evening shift and dogs and bikes if this is successful. That is a public health approach I can live with.”
Murphy asked Town Manager Roger Hernstadt if he has the manpower to enforce this. “We will have the Beach Patrol and Code Enforcement personnel and if people do not take their direction, we will call the Lee County Sheriffs Office for assistance,” replied Hernstadt.
“I want people back on the beach like everyone else,” Murphy commented. “But I am concerned about our friends from the East Coast coming over here to seek our beaches. I spoke with Dr. Laurence Antonucci, head of Lee Health, and Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief Matt Love, who is our leading health professional on the beach, and they think letting people back out on the beach would be a big mistake. We only have eight reported cases on the coronavirus on Fort Myers Beach and I am proud of that!”
Council member Dan Allers suggested adding “dog walking and bicycles at a minimum, in the spirit of compromise.” Atterholt again offered the hours of 7 to 10 a.m. “I prefer that we do not have time limits,” replied Allers, “but I can do that. Our residents and businesses are already demonstrating good behavior, as social distancing is now ingrained into our heads. If the beach reopens, you still have the choice not to go.” “We cannot make policy based on a couple of knuckleheads who do foolish things,” added Atterholt. Allers concluded, “This is not what I hoped for, but it is a step in the right direction. We can discuss it again on Friday.”
Atterholt suggested allowing swimming along the coastline but Hosafros did not favor that, as to her, swimming means “bringing a towel and then you are sitting on the beach. I prefer not to add that at this point.” Hosafros added that she would like it to take effect on Tuesday, April 28. Council passed the Motion 3 – 2, with Murphy and Veach against.
Accommodations Open May 15
Council next discussed the April 3 Emergency Declaration that suspended new rentals from March 30 through June 26, including any new rental reservations.
Veach suggested that in light of the April 30 scheduled expiration of the Governor’s “Safer-at-Home” order and Lee County Commissioners’ Emergency Meeting on Tuesday, April 28, Council delay this until it can review the beach business Task Force recommendations, then bring it up at the May 1 Special Meeting, “as we will have a lot more information to implement a strategy in the next couple of days.”
Atterholt offered a compromise to allow hotels, short term renters and other accommodations to begin taking reservations again on Friday, May 15, “to put them on an equal footing with our neighboring communities, so that they can survive, frankly!” “I am OK with that,” said Murphy. Allers added, “We have to let people know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, so allowing them to accept bookings on May 15 is a good compromise. At least it lets people know that we hear them and are trying.” “If they can take reservations on May 15,” asked Hosafros, “on what date do you allow occupancy?” “May 15,” responded Atterholt, with Allers agreeing. The Motion passed 4 – 1, with Veach against.
Council determined it did not need to take any action on the March 29 or March 30 Emergency Declarations, as the April 3 Emergency Declaration replaced the March 29 action, and Executive Orders from Governor DeSantis made the March 30 one moot. Council adjourned at 12:31 p.m.
Next Meeting May 1
Council will meet in a Special Meeting on Friday, May 1 at 9am via Zoom to discuss further changes to the Town’s Emergency Regulations. Public Comments should be emailed to PublicComment@fmbgov.com by 8:30am, Friday, May 1. The meeting can be viewed on Comcast Channel 98 in the 33931 zip code area or on YouTube. Instructions on how to participate via Zoom are available on the meeting agenda, but emailed Public Comment has been more reliable over the past several council meetings via Zoom.