Periodically, The Island Sand Paper asks community leaders 6 Questions. In this edition, former Town Council members Bruce Butcher, Anita Cereceda and Joanne Shamp reflect on their service to the Town from March 13 through April 3, when the Coronavirus pandemic caused them to make several historic decisions, including in four Emergency Meetings after what was to be their last scheduled session on Friday, March 13.
Q1: Your last regularly-scheduled meeting prior to the March 17 Town election was to be Friday, March 13. Did you have any inclination then that you would need four additional Emergency Meetings over the next three weeks?
Bruce Butcher: While I figured that March 13 would probably do it, what really surprised me was that we needed four more emergency sessions!
Anita Cereceda: I had a strong feeling the day before the March 13 Meeting that there would be difficult times coming soon down the pike. I attended a Tourism Development Council Meeting that day and they said they would be cancelling all events after that weekend, then I went right to another meeting at the Lee County Emergency Operations Center, where Lee Health personnel spoke and you could see it in their faces that they were already tired and everything was just beginning. Even after that, I still held out hope the next morning that we could allow the Shrimp Festival, but I began telling friends from Tampa and people I love on the island, like Ceel Spuhler, that they should not attend the Shrimp Festival, and that was my “Ah-Ha Moment!” If I were telling them not to attend, how were they any more important than the thousands who would come to the island that weekend and that changed my mind. From that moment on, I knew there were more tough decisions to be made and we couldn’t wait for the Town election and the next Council to make them.
Joanne Shamp: It’s funny – I did! My husband Dan and I were already beginning to “shelter in place” by March 13 and I did not even want to attend that Council Meeting in person! My fellow Council members sort of made a little fun of me, because I kept scooting away from Rexann Hosafros, who I sat next to, and was leaning back in my chair and not letting anyone near me, so I already knew then that this would not be an easy ride. One of our sons is a physician, so he was already preparing us for what lay ahead. Dan bought me flowers and a bottle of champagne for when the meeting was over, and I told him that I love the flowers but it is probably too early to drink the champagne!
Q2: From March 13 through April 3, Council took several historic steps, such as cancelling the Shrimp Fest, declaring the Town Emergency, cancelling all Special Event Permits; closing the beach, cancelling all rental reservations, closing Town beach access parking, and shutting down beach vendors. Do any of those stand out more or does each carry its own unique weight?
Bruce Butcher: The most difficult one for me was to close all the hotels and Short Term Rentals until the end of June because that had such a tremendous economic impact that would domino down the line. It was not only the rental investors who were losing income over those closures, but that rolled over to all the other businesses who cater to those lodgers, like shops and restaurants. That seemed like an awfully long time until the end of June, but at that time, with the information we had then, it was the right thing to do.
Anita Cereceda: The most difficult was closing the beach! All the other ones had individual impacts on different elements of our community, like beachfront property owners and hotels, but closing the beach affected even people like me, who like to walk to the beach to watch the sunset. It was at once the most obvious decision and the most difficult, as I knew it would impact more people than perhaps all the other ones put together. It struck all the people who live and visit here, as we took away their greatest pleasure and that weighed heavily on me, but it was necessary to lower our population as quickly as possible for the health and safety of the residents and guests who remain.
Joanne Shamp: I look at all those decisions collectively. There is that old saying that goes, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” so I realized there was going to be a lot of pain in the various levels of the community, depending on what sector you represent, so these were all very painful decisions and in that respect, they all weighed on me equally heavily. We did them so that the greatest number of people would be safe, but you knew there would be suffering all across the board.
Q3: Do you remain comfortable with all those decisions, or are there any you think may have been too strict or not strict enough?
Bruce Butcher: Given what we knew when we made all those tough calls, they were correct. We are just now starting to accumulate a lot of the data you need to reassess those decisions and change and alter them over the course of time, but they were the right way to go. Back then, we only had speculation; today we have some actual numbers.
Anita Cereceda: There is zero doubt in my mind that we needed to take swift and decisive action that I hope saved lives, so I don’t regret any of them! I wish I had a crystal ball so that I could see if all of these were good ideas, but when April 6 rolled around and I “Xed Out” of that ZOOM Meeting, I did so knowing I did everything I could to protect as many of our citizens and others as possible. Were people angry and frustrated? Absolutely! But we did what was necessary and I would not change any of them.
Joanne Shamp: I am comfortable with those decisions, as we made them with the best information we had at the time, and it is clear that we had to act in an extreme fashion. These were drastic decisions and you will mostly likely never know the full impact as to if we did too much or not enough, because you will never know how many people may have passed away or gotten seriously ill if we had not. The only thing I look back on in retrospect is that perhaps we set out too far a date for reservations to return at June 26, and it is encouraging that we are already starting to see the first steps that the community may reopen. That to me signals that we did the right things in the very beginning, including saving lives, and that we put the community in position to start to consider reopening sooner rather than later, so I have few issues with our decisions.
Q4: Where there any emergency measures that Town Council did not implement that you wish it had?
Bruce Butcher: I can’t think of anything else we did not try or do.
Anita Cereceda: No! Maybe we could have closed the bridges if we pushed that but I can’t think of anything more.
Joanne Shamp: No!
Q5: Overall, did you receive mostly positive or negative reactions from Town residents concerning those tough calls, and were there one or two in particular in which you received the most positive support or the greatest negative pushback?
Bruce Butcher: The most negative feedback was to close the beaches, as many Fort Myers Beach residents felt they have the God-given birthright to walk the beach. They did not seem to realize that if we kept the beach open, we would have people coming here from the Miami area and all the other “hot spots” from all over the nation arriving here in droves! There was a bit of selfishness in that reaction, but sacrificing those beach walks were worth it for public safety in the short and long run. Most of the residents who spoke with or commented to me were in support of most of the other decisions.
Anita Cereceda: For sure it was closing the beach, in both the positive and negative categories. By-in-large, our residents knew what we did was necessary and supported our positions, though there are, of course, a handful of people who feel that you are taking away their civil liberties, but under States of Emergency, all bets are off and government needs to make difficult decisions like we did under the current situation, and that is what we did.
Joanne Shamp: I received the most positive support over closing the beachfront, even though for businesses and hotels and private property owners, it was a tough thing to do. I think it was apparent that closing the beach was the only way to get the social separation we needed and to break up the party that always occurs here at that time of year. The timing was bad in terms of when COVID-19 arrived here, as we were ratcheting up everything on the island but it was the best decision we could make, and overall I received far more positive than negative feedback. What was tough is that there are many people who visit here for just one week a year, in condos and time shares, and I got the most negative feedback from them, but those folks do not realize how many others fall into that category – probably more than year-round fulltime residents – and it was not possible to allow them to come and still flatten the curve. Of course, watching the economic impact and the growing unemployment was devastating, but those were the decisions we had to make, as we will never know the number of lives we saved.
Q6: What was the best part about being a FMB Town Council Member?
Bruce Butcher: Our version of Council made some significant improvements to the Town, particularly in approving TPI-FMB, to the 50% Rule for FEMA building requirements, and we were able to work well with Lee County to speed up the reconstruction of Estero Boulevard, so those are the three that stand out to me. What I found the most enjoyable was to be able to contribute to the Town’s Strategic Plan process because it did not receive a significant update since the Comprehensive Plan was done many years ago. I think we left the Town in very good shape!
Anita Cereceda: Getting to serve the people of this community! At our last meeting, I got emotional just thinking about that, as I am starting to get emotional right this second! I would not want to trade places with anyone else on this planet, even if I could go to a lovely spot that does not have coronavirus, so that is how much I appreciate everyone here. That is the best part of the job for me and there is nothing else that can compare!
Joanne Shamp: I harken back to the vision of the Town when it first formed, even though I was not here then, though we have been Town residents for 16 years. I really enjoyed taking the Comprehensive Plan and looking at it, then taking the steps to move that forward, so what sticks in my mind the most is getting those many concepts and projects underway. The Town finances prior to the coronavirus situation were such that we could look forward to enacting many of those visions, and I hope when we come out of the COVID-19 impact, however long that is, we will be able to get back on track with all the exciting plans there are for the Town. Fort Myers Beach will continue to have a bright future and I look forward to when that starts again.