Holiday Influx Concerns Council
The Fort Myers Beach Town Council met in a Special Session on Wednesday afternoon, July 1, deciding by its inaction to keep the Town beaches and parking open for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday weekend. During the meeting they reinforced that the Town prohibits personal fireworks on Fort Myers Beach. Finally, Council by a divided 3 to 2 vote passed a Mandatory Mask Ordinance.
Council considered the beach ban in response to the rapid rise in Southwest Florida and statewide coronavirus cases over the past three weeks, as well as the number of South Florida beaches that have opted to close or restrict parking for the holiday weekend. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said that he will not close Florida beaches again in response to the COVID-19 increases, and Lee County Commissioner Chair Brian Hamman stated that Lee County will keep its beaches open for the weekend, including Crescent Beach Family Park, Lynn Hall Memorial Park and Bowditch Point Park on Fort Myers Beach.
Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jacki Liszak was one of just two people who spoke during Public Comment.
Liszak told the Council that the Chamber Board of Directors met Tuesday “to discuss the potential restrictions and/or beach closure for the upcoming 4th of July weekend. The Board was informed of the various actions taken this week by surrounding communities due to concerns over the spread of COVID during the upcoming holiday weekend…the FMB Board feels strongly that the beaches of Ft. Myers Beach should not be closed to residents and guests this holiday weekend. The Board feels that completely closing the FMB beaches would result in residents and guests crowding into enclosed spaces, pool decks and patios which could result in a greater transmission of the COVID virus. They also feel that the closure of our beaches would result in a high number of cancellations which would negatively impact the already stressed businesses on our island.” Liszak continued with suggestions that included mask use indoors, increased police and Town personnel presence over the weekend to encourage adherence to CDC guidelines and the closure of downtown public parking.
Keeping the Beach Open
Murphy began the discussion by stating, “You would have to live under a rock not to know that Florida is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with the number of cases in Lee County increasing and hospital bed availability decreasing. The counties along the East Coast of Florida in their wisdom, closed their beaches for the holiday weekend, and now Collier County is limiting their hours and parking, making Fort Myers Beach the lone holdout, along with the Lee County beaches. Those County Commissioners and Mayors made those decisions because they care about their people, so the question facing us now in Fort Myers Beach is do we welcome everyone with open arms and let the good times roll or take some type of action to manage the situation. The people who live in those other areas who want to find a beach will discover we are the only game in town, so that is where we are today.”
Every county along Florida’s Atlantic coast from St. Lucie County east of Lake Okeechobee to Key West in Monroe County have closed their beaches for the holiday weekend. Collier County and Naples have closed their beaches from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and limited beach parking to county residents only, leaving Lee and Charlotte counties the closest beaches available to millions of South Florida residents this Fourth of July weekend.
Council member Bill Veach stated, “I have a couple of concerns. Lee County is hell-bent to keep their beaches open to daytrippers who will not add much to our businesses and hotels, and all these extra people on the beach will make it harder to social distance. I do not want to hurt our businesses and hotels and would much rather work with Lee County than have Lee County dictate to us. I would like to do this in cooperation with private and public parking so the beach is not so accessible.”
“I watched the Governor’s press conference on Sunday,” commented Council Member Jim Atterholt. “He was surrounded by doctors in Northwest Florida. There was no sense of panic from either the Governor or the doctors. He went through all the data. There is a surge, primarily younger folks, rarely symptomatic. Again, manageable in terms of influx to the hospitals…I noticed the other day Lee Health, the largest employer in Lee County, announced massive layoffs and a 4-6 week offer to take the summer off. It’s a strange message coming from our medical professionals, particularly Lee Health, given the angst that we’re all supposed to be in over this crisis. I think the largest contributor to negative health outcomes is not COVID, which is real and certainly a threat, but poverty and the economic hardship that folks are going through.…I throw that out there just to provide a little balance. I respect my colleagues and their comments thus far. I think we need to take a little bit broader look at this.” He continued, “The hotels and vacation rentals are already full. Are we going to shut down our whole island or shut down the beaches because folks are going to drive two hours from Miami and then drive home? That seems odd to me and maybe a little overreactive. We have a county beach that will remain open. Will we have a line of demarcation between the town beach and the county beach with armed guards? By closing our beach are we going to compact all these folks into the county beach? If we’re concerned about public health, that doesn’t seem like a wise course of action.”
Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros opined, “This is a very difficult question and I’ve thought about it extensively, and one of the things I try to do is to step back and look at what we can we do. We got a lot of email suggestions about things that are not within the power of this Town Council. We cannot stop people at the bridge and check their ID’s. We can’t close the bridges. There are so many things that we don’t have the power to do. Then there are things that we could do but are not feasible. That leaves us with a small selection of possibilities. The part of the beach that we do control are the beach accesses on the south end of the island and I’ve thought seriously about whether we should limit access to those or close down the parking. The more I thought about that the less sense it made. Because our Lee County Commissioners have failed to act to assist us in this crisis, we are stuck with the fact that the majority of the public beach where people go are county beaches and if we close our beach accesses, then everybody is going to crowd (onto county beaches) which doesn’t make any sense to me. I am left with the feeling that our hands are tied.”
“Over this whole COVID-19 thing, there is plenty of information for whatever side you are on, whether you think it is a farce or the end of the world,” noted Council member Dan Allers. “We are all concerned about our citizens and businesses and those coming over here but we are reacting to what other areas did and that is an issue with me. If we were so concerned about this weekend and closing the beach, we should have been one of the first to discuss this but we are one of the last. I do not blame Lee County Commissioners over their decision not to close the beach, as they did what they think is right and I agree with them.”
Murphy concluded, “I see no appetite to take any action to close the beach or change the parking situation, as the consensus of the Council.”
Unlight the Night!
Hosafros had an issue with the bulk of the Lee County Sheriffs Office (LCSO) personnel planning to exit Fort Myers Beach at 8 p.m., “as people will shoot off fireworks after that.” LCSO West District Captain Brian Jacacki reassured her, “We will still be here when the sun goes down, when people blow off fireworks, to deal with that.” “Thank you,” said Hosafros, “as that is my concern.” She reminded Fort Myers Beach residents and guests that local ordinances prohibit private fireworks on the island.
Face Mask Ordinance
Veach made a motion for the Town to institute a Face Mask Ordinance mandating the use of face masks on Fort Myers Beach, based on existing ordinances from Monroe County and the City of Sanibel. After a brief recess, Town Attorney John Herin, Jr. crafted a draft version for Council’s consideration.
The ordinance requires everyone over the age of six to wear a mask if they cannot maintain six feet of social distancing both inside and outside. Barbershop or beauty salon customers can remove their mask if it interferes with the service they are receiving. Exemptions include children under six, restaurant and bar customers while dining or drinking while seated, church services, gym workouts providing social distancing is possible and anyone with a medical condition that prevents wearing a mask. The draft ordinance includes a $50-per-violation fine for individuals and $500-per-violation fine for businesses.
Council then passed the Face Mask Ordinance 3 to 2, with Allers and Atterholt against. The final, signed ordinance was not available at deadline late Wednesday night. Check the Town’s website fmbgov.com for the final signed ordinance.