Town Opens Property Grounds
The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council voted unanimously to lift COVID-19 beach-related restrictions and reopen the beach, beach accesses and public parking beginning Saturday, May 2. They took this and associated actions at a 2-hour virtual Special Meeting on Friday, May 1. In addition to opening the beach, the beach access parking will reopen along with the public areas at the Bay Oaks Recreational Center, Mound House and Newton Beach Park, as well as the Newton Beach Park public restroom, but not the Fort Myers Beach Community Pool. The Town will strictly enforce all Center for Disease Control guidelines and social distancing regulations but visitors do not need to wear masks.
Mayor Ray Murphy began the meeting by immediately making a motion to “reopen our beach and parking, and for exercise the Mound House and Bay Oaks Recreational Center outside grounds, all tomorrow.” Council member Jim Atterholt seconded the motion, but Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros state that “I do not feel comfortable moving forward with that before we hear the Public Comments,” with Atterholt agreeing.
Murphy instructed Town Clerk Michelle Mayher to read the email Public Comments. Fourteen citizens weighed in, with twelve in support of reopening the Town in various capacities, including allowing vacation and hotel rentals to begin May 4 rather than the current May 15 date, immediately reopening the public beach, requesting that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis lift Short Term Rental restrictions, immediately reopening Fort Myers Beach private property beaches, and reopening beach restaurants and related businesses per the Governor’s Phase One order. Two people stated that this is not the time to reopen the beach due to COVID-19 concerns.
Beach & Parking Reopen
In bringing his motion forward, Murphy reminded, “This can still go the other way. While I have all the confidence in our citizenry, California reclosed all Orange County beaches because people did not social distance, so it can be done. With everyone’s cooperation, we can return to normal life on Fort Myers Beach and that is my soapbox!”
Atterholt suggested adding the reopening of Newton Beach Park and its public restroom to the motion, as well as including Council approval in line with the Phase One reopening regulations from Governor DeSantis, noting that “Sanibel did this all-together.” Hosafros replied, “Sanibel did not include its beach parking. I suggest we stay in sync with Sanibel on this, so reopen our beach accesses but keep parking closed for now.” Atterholt replied, “I have a concern if we reopen the beach there (Newton Park) but not the restroom; people may then use the wrong areas of the beach for relief!” Hosafros suggested a combination of bacterial wipes and Town staff to appropriately sanitize the restroom.
Council member Bill Veach stated, “I am torn about parking, as Lee County opened theirs and they had a lot of people in a very small area, and if we open ours, the Town may need to deal with putting strangers into our neighborhoods. If we do open ours, however, people can spread out over 7 miles.” Atterholt added, “I am comfortable opening the parking, as Bill suggested, to spread out the crowd. That would be a good health aspect and consistent with Lee County.” Hosafros, however, said, “I do not want to be an obstructionist, but if people come from everywhere, that makes our residents susceptible, so I would like to keep parking closed for the safety of our residents.” Council member Dan Allers stated, “I heard from several south end residents that if we do not allow beach access parking, people will park in the condominium lots, so I favor opening parking.”
Council unanimously voted to open the beach, beach accesses and parking, the Newton Beach Park and restroom, and outside aspects of the Bay Oaks Recreational Center and Mound House beginning Saturday, May 2, but it will continue to close the Fort Myers Beach Community Pool.
Support Phase One
Atterholt made a motion to support the Governor’s Phase One to reopen Florida, “so the Town can proceed accordingly. I would love to see a unanimous vote so that our hotels can begin taking reservations on May 4, per the Governor’s recommendations.” Veach noted, “Sanibel hotels cannot open or take reservations until May 15, just as we already have done, so my support hinges on whether we keep that or not.” Hosafros stated, “The Governor’s recommendation do not tie our hands. I prefer we not take reservations earlier, to stay in sync with Sanibel.” Atterholt then removed the May 4 reservation stipulation from his motion, “so that our restaurants can plan for 25% indoor occupancy and 6 feet of separation for outside table dining, and retail can prepare for 25% occupancy, so they can order supplies and plan ahead accordingly, in a measured and thoughtful way,” with Council unanimously passing the motion.
STRs & Time Shares
Council discussed if they could ease Short Term Rental reservation restrictions, to allow lodgers to access those accommodations, but Allers offered that, while he is “getting a lot of comments on this, the Governor essentially took the authority on this, as that will come in Phase Two.”
Hosafros disagreed with the Town prohibiting Time Share accommodations, “as these people are the owners, and we should not prohibit owners from using their own property.” Veach stated that the previous Council put this in place “to limit the number of transient visitors in Town.” Hosafros persisted, explaining, “I don’t know how you can prohibit an owner from using their own property, as they have ownership rights. I agree these owners cannot exchange or rent it to someone else.” “Pools tend to be a big congregation point,” said Veach. “Hotels can have a 50% occupancy limit for their pools, but Time Share people have these slots for the year, so I see social distancing as a challenge. Plus these people all come from somewhere else and can bring the illness with them, so that is another challenge.”
Hosafros commented, “If you own a Time Share, you can only come at a certain time of year, and if that passes, you are out of luck. That is why it is called a ‘Time Share’; everyone owns the building all year, but only for a specific week or month.” “Then they are all transients,” stipulated Allers. “Not if you are an owner,” reiterated Hosafros. “An owner should be allowed to come for their two weeks, but not rent it to anyone else.” Murphy said that if Council lifted its restriction, ‘then Time Shares will be 100% occupied.” “Short Term Renters can get their money back; these folks are out theirs,” Hosafros exclaimed, “These are the people we are hurting the most! We as a Council segregated this group; we need to pull back” and made the motion to allow Time Share owners to immediately occupy their units. “I see it from both sides,” Allers offered, “as I agree with both Rexann and Bill, so I will go with the will of Council.” “I appreciate that,” said Hosafros, “but you are most likely the deciding vote!” Council defeated the motion 3 to 2, with Allers, Murphy and Veach against.
Medical Advice & Meeting Location
Hosafros stated that she hears from Town residents “that we do not seem to get much advice from health and medical professionals in making our decisions, but the Town Manager sends us a lot of information from multiple local, state and federal sources, and I spent eight hours going through all that, so I assure you we are all getting a lot of information and taking a great deal of time digesting it before we make our decisions.”
Murphy opined, “While we are still in a health crisis, perhaps our meeting for Monday morning, May 4, is the time we stop having virtual sessions and bring them back to Town Hall with appropriate social distancing.” Hosafros, disagreed, saying the end of virtual meetings is in the Governor’s Phase Two initiative, as well as the fact that she is a backup caretaker for several people. Atterholt supported Murphy, saying, “Obviously the Board of Lee County Commissioners meet together,” with Allers in favor as well. Town Manager Roger Hernstadt explained, “There would be a technical issue with some of you in Chambers and others via Zoom at the same time.” Veach added, “‘Public Comment’ would be problematical as, only ten people can be in Chambers at any one time.”
Council adjourned without making a decision, but Mayor Murphy informed The Island Sand Paper after the meeting that the May 4 Meeting will be virtual, with citizens able to watch on Comcast Channel 98, on the Town’s YouTube site, or audio only on the Town webpage at 9 a.m. He also stated that though the order to reopen the beach was for May 2, it was essentially reopened Friday afternoon.