Council Approves Fireworks

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Date To Be Determined

A divided Council for the Town of Fort Myers Beach approved a $27,000 contract to provide a fireworks display, but not necessarily for the Fourth of July. In a 3 – 2 vote, Council authorized Town Manager Roger Hernstadt to sign the agreement with Garden State Fireworks for a date yet uncertain between July 4th and New Year’s Eve. Council will ultimately select the actual date depending on the COVID-19 pandemic and steps the Town can take to implement social distancing standards, including possibly closing Times Square the evening of the display.

When discussing the contract that would allow Fort Myers Beach to host a fireworks show sometime between July 4, 2020 and December 31, 2020, Council member Bill Veach stated, “We are in a very different time, where the COVID-19 infection is not going away anytime soon. We reduced the infection with more folks social distancing but now we are losing that, so it is important to our businesses and health that we select the method that offers the least risk. The idea of a lot of people shoulder-to-shoulder for fireworks that do not provide a great deal of business does not make much sense from the business or health standpoints, even if we delay to New Year’s Eve.”

Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros noted, “If we go forward with the Fourth of July, I have yet to see any plan for how we do that. I favor the motion to host fireworks sometime between the Fourth and New Year’s Eve, with a plan to come forward to see how we could do that.” Council member Jim Atterholt said he felt, “This gives us a plan to move forward with flexibility.” Council member Dan Allers asked when Garden State needs to know the actual display date, while Mayor Ray Murphy asked, “My question to the Town Manager is how will we manage this crowd, to keep people apart?”

Hernstadt stated that the contract calls for the Town to provide Garden State with half the amount as a down payment and felt they would need roughly one-month’s notice for the show, “so June 1 for the Fourth of July. That triggers the Special Events Permit and our meeting with the rest of the stakeholders, like the Lee County Sheriffs Office (LCSO) and Fort Myers Beach Fire Department, and the COVID-19 plan comes from that. I don’t know that we can enforce appropriate public behavior, as that is up to each individual. It is possible we can close Times Square, to keep it from being too overcrowded, and that is about the extent we can do, as at the end of the day, there will be too many people to ensure they all follow appropriate behavior.”

“Knuckleheads” Public Policy

Murphy did not favor “approving the contract today, as we do not have a plan to protect people.” “Everyone who lives in this Town is one to two degrees of separation from someone who will work or recreate downtown,” said Veach, “so there is a lot of risk and the benefit to business is small.” Allers stated, “People are already going above-and-beyond what we ask them to do for social distancing.” Hosafros noted that some Town residents are not happy with the current LCSO beach enforcement efforts, with Murphy stating that LCSO patrols are to increase, especially for the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend. Hosafros questioned, “Lee County recently received a great deal of federal government stimulus money; why should the Town pay for extra security when Lee County opened their beach properties? I did not hear them mention that at their recent meeting.”

Atterholt suggested the Town not make its decision based “on a few knuckleheads who are not compliant. We should set public policy knowing we can trust people to do the right thing. Let’s see how things work out over the Memorial Day weekend, as that will give us time to see how the whole thing pans out. I challenge the Town Manager to look at other communities to find creative ways to make this work!” Veach offered that perhaps fireworks could be on a barge at mid-island, to spread out the crowd, then addressed Atterholt’s “knucklehead” comment: “we make public policy based on people who do not follow the rules nor show common sense!” Council then approved the Garden State contract but did not stipulate that the display will be on the Fourth of July by a 3 to 2 vote, with Murphy and Veach against.

Health & Wealth

Under “State of Local Emergency: Florida Recovery Phase I,” Veach noted that Lee County Commissioners sent Governor Ron DeSantis a request to lift his Vacation Rentals moratorium effective Wednesday, May 20, with Veach describing most of its points as “vague and unenforceable.” Murphy agreed, saying, “The Governor does not want people coming from New York City, but how do you enforce that?” Veach added, “We need to look at this as an opportunity to create our ‘New Normal,’ through clean and safe rentals. We need to send the message that we are looking out for our health and not just our wealth!”

Hernstadt reinforced that “until the Governor lifts his Vacation Rental Order, his supersedes any Town Emergency Declaration.” Allers asked if Town Code Enforcement dealt with any Vacation Rental violators over the past weekend. Hernstadt replied, “We asked them to make other arrangements, like at a local hotel. The message I got was that people were very cooperative.”

“Good To Be Back”

Bay Oaks Recreation Center. Photo by Sarah List.

For the first time since late March, Council met in Town Hall Chambers, with ample social distancing before a handful of residents. “It’s good to be back in Town Hall,” enthused Murphy, “and good to welcome our three new Council members here for the first time!”

Kevin Ruane, Sanibel Mayor and current Florida League of Mayors President, attended the meeting and asked Council for their support to address Lake Okeechobee release standards to allow Southwest Florida to receive enough water in the dry season while containing flows that can lead to Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide in the wet season. “We must manage the Lake in an effective way,” Ruane reported, “like the last two years, to ensure all user groups benefit and not just one.”

Atterholt noted that the Florida Legislature allocated $625 million in the current State budget for water quality projects and asked if that funding were in jeopardy due to coronavirus issues? “I don’t believe it is,” responded Ruane. “The federal government CARES Act provided the State $8.3 billion. These projects provide jobs and it is important that people keep working, so I am encouraged.”

LPA Applicants Needed

In other matters, Council unanimously approved several agenda items. Under their Consent Agenda, Council approved the “Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant” for $184,284; allocated $126,013 to Infinite Construction for the Bay Road & School Street Sidewalks; authorized the Town Manager to apply for a Clean Vessel Act Grant through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; and allocated $7,460 from Beach Renourishment Funds to initiate a state funding application. Council by a 4 – 1 vote appointed Sarah Torgerson, one of three candidates, to the one opening on the Marine Resources Task Force.

Council deferred naming a new person to the Local Planning Agency (LPA), to give the public more time to submit applications via the Town website. “This is a very important committee,” said Allers, “and we need the best possible candidates.” Atterholt noted, “Council relies heavily on the LPA for zoning matters. For folks who really want to have their finger on the pulse of the Town, the LPA is that committee.” The two open seats on the LPA are a result of former LPA members Allers’ and Atterholt’s election to council.

Under Town Manager Items, Hernstadt noted that the Bay Oaks Recreational Center cardio and weight rooms are open in 45-minute increments by appointment only at 239-765-4222 to a maximum of four people each hour, with staff doing a comprehensive cleaning the remaining 15 minutes of each hour. “Restrooms are open by request only, and all instructors can hold classes out on the field. The Mound House is a greater challenge, so it will only open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours are self-guided, with one staff member per floor. People can use the restroom but we will close the Museum Store.” Allers inquired about reopening children’s programming, with Hernstadt responding, “Camps create a greater challenge; we have no solutions yet.”

Town Attorney John Herin, Jr. told Council he is planning to hold an Executive Session prior to either the June 1 or June 15 Council Meeting to discuss two issues, one being the south end private beach dune walkover. Once he recommends the date, Council will hold their Executive Session at 9 a.m., with the Council Meeting starting roughly one hour later.