The Lee County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) unanimously voted on April 28 to reopen their beach parks, including those located on Fort Myers Beach, on Wednesday, April 29, at an Emergency Meeting to address COVID-19 restrictions. With the exception of social distancing measures like six feet of separation between family groups, the BoCC reopened Crescent Beach Family Park, Lynn Hall Memorial Park and Bowditch Point Park , along with their other beach parks, without restrictions, including parking and free-standing restroom facilities. This is in sharp contrast to actions of the Fort Myers Beach Town Council that began a partial reopening of its beach on August 28 but with heavy restrictions.
The three Lee County beach parks are now open to the general public from dawn to dusk. Beachgoers can not only walk, jog, run, bicycle and walk their dogs, but can swim, sunbath, bring towels and beachchairs, can access the paid parking lots and restroom facilities, and do not have to wear facemasks.
Conversely, Town restrictions allowed its beach to reopen on Tuesday, April 28, but only to Town residents with identification from 7 to 10 a.m. Town citizens can walk, jog, run, bicycle or walk their dogs, but cannot swim, bring beach towels or chairs, or sunbathe. In addition to adhering to all Social Distancing practices, all beachgoers must wear protective facemasks. Town beach access parking facilities will not reopen, nor will any restroom locations. The Motion passed at a council Special Meeting held April 27, by a 3 to 2 vote, with Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros and Council members Dan Allers and Jim Atterholt in favor and Mayor Ray Murphy and Council member Bill Veach against.
The Town’s Beach Patrol and Code Enforcement personnel will enforce restrictions, and will call Lee County Sheriffs Deputies for help if necessary. Council meets again in a virtual Special Meeting at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, May 1, to consider expanding beach hours and access. You can watch the session on Comcast Channel 98, on the Town’s YouTube channel, or via an audio-only broadcast on the Town website.
BoCC Chair Brian Hamman opened the Emergency Meeting by saying “The BoCC took the first steps last week by reopening many of our trails and preserves and we observed people outside enjoying the parks while practicing social distancing guidelines for COVID-19. Now is the time to take the next step, from our staff recommendations for our other parks and beach locations.”
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais reported that Lee County implemented its “Stay at Home” Order in response to the coronavirus outbreak, “but today the local healthcare system is at just 60% capacity, with sufficient numbers to deal with this pandemic and any spike to follow, so it is time we get back to normal. Lee County over the past 14 days is on a downward trajectory in documented coronavirus cases, with just a 9% positive testing rate. Last week we opened our parks and that went well, so we are here today to discuss reopening the beaches and other parks. Tourism season is over so there is ample opportunity for social distancing, and we will reopen parking lots and free-standing bathrooms, as people will travel to these sites, and County staff will clean the bathrooms and parking machines all day. Having the beaches open throughout the day with paid parking will spread out their usage, rather than having a large number of people in smaller blocks of time. The Lee County website will list the beaches, beach accesses and parks, along with restrictions.”
Hamman stated, “Lee County beaches and parks guidelines will mirror those of the Center for Disease Control. We expect folks to enjoy the beach but to protect themselves. Maintain six feet of social distancing on the beach, but your individual household can sit together as long as you separate from other households by six feet. If a husband-&-wife sit together on a towel, no one will bother you, but if you congregate together in a large group, the Lee County Sheriffs Office and County Staff will separate you. Vulnerable individuals should continue to stay home; this is not a mandate to go to the beach, so if you disagree, you can choose to not go to the beach and not allow those who have been to the beach near you.”
Town’s Beach Ban Unconstitutional?
Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch questioned whether the Town of Fort Myers Beach could legally restrict beach access to just town residents, telling the county commissioners, “I have some reservations about the regulations that were put in place by the town as to their constitutionality, though I won’t get into that right now, but I would suggest to you that you are within your authority to open up your parks. I would also remind you that the law in the state of Florida is that the beach area seaward of the mean high water line is owned by the State of Florida in trust for all the people. There’s also the question of our ability or even the town’s ability to regulate state property.”
When Commissioner John Manning asked Wesch about a request from Boca Grande to delay opening the beach there by two weeks, he replied, “Not having heard any rational basis for that, I would suggest not. You run into questions of equal protection in that scenario, which is one of the difficulties I have with the town (FMB) regulations. Similarly situated people should be treated similarly and I’ve not heard any rational basis to treat the people of Boca or, quite honestly, the residents of the town any differently.” He continued, “One issue that I think I have with the town regulation is also the fact that it’s not reciprocal. There’s not a requirement that town residents stay within the town city limits. So while they’re looking to ban people coming into their town, there’s no prohibition against their residents going out of their town and perhaps bringing COVID back in. I think that’s certainly an equal protection issue that they need to deal with.”
No Gradual Beach Opening
District 3 Commissioner Raymond Sandelli, whose jurisdiction includes Fort Myers Beach, suggested a compromise. “I agree to open parks, as people are anxious to do that, and that is the same for parking and restrooms, but I am not sure about totally opening the beaches. When we first opened parks last week, we did so only for exercise and walking, and we reviewed that over the next week before taking the next step, so I personally prefer we do that with the beaches as well, for consistency and responsibility.”
No other Commissioner backed Sandelli, with Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass quickly saying, “I support the staff recommendation today. Everybody has a choice, whether you are 18 or 65, so you can go to the beach or stay home. It is your constitutional right to enjoy these properties,” with Hamman adding, “Amen!”
Six people spoke during Public Comment, including Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, with all in favor of reopening various segments of Lee County, with three specifically mentioning the beaches.
Desjarlais commented, “We will see how this goes, as people must do social distancing, as we can always go backwards.” Pendergrass made the motion to reopen all Lee County beaches and parks that unanimously passed.
Hamman stated, “The people of Lee County want to use their beaches and parks. The Town of Fort Myers Beach took action yesterday to adopt different rules than we did today. So that everyone knows what to expect, do any Commissioners mind if I reach out to the Fort Myers Beach Mayor to see if they can get on the same page with us?” Pendergrass spoke for his fellow Commissioners by saying, “consistency is the objective and very important.” The BoCC adjourned their 50-minute Emergency Meeting at 10:20 a.m.
Town Response: Stay North of Crescent Park
In an email statement to The Island Sand Paper Tuesday afternoon, Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy said that Commissioner Hamman did contact him. Murphy replied that the Town has a Special Meeting scheduled on Friday, May 1, to discuss their beach restrictions at 9 a.m. Hamman asked that Murphy call an immediate meeting to address the inconsistencies between the County and Town, but Murphy noted he has yet to receive similar requests from the Town Manager or his fellow Council members, so the meeting will remain on Friday morning.
The Town released a statement late Tuesday afternoon emphasizing that Town-controlled beaches were still restricted and non-residents should stay on county controlled areas, Crescent Beach Park and northward. It stated:
“The Lee County Commissioners voted today to re-open County-controlled public beaches effective Wednesday, April 29, 2020. This impacts the beach from Crescent Beach Park including Lynn Hall Memorial Park (pier) northward and Bowditch Point Park.
“However, beach and accesses controlled by the Town of Fort Myers Beach (from Crescent Beach Pak south to Big Carlos Pass Bridge) remain open from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. for residents’ exercise only. Beach access parking controlled by the Town remains closed. Enforcement of parking and beach access violations will be in effect.
“The Town’s parks, recreation and cultural facilities, as well as Town Hall, remain closed until at least Friday, May 1, 2020, when Town Council is scheduled to meet for further discussion on beach openings and related topics.
“When the Lee County beaches open (April 29), the general public is advised to stay in and north of Crescent Beach Park.”