Local Pandemic Timeline
The streets of Fort Myers Beach are mostly vacant. There is no line of cars creeping north each afternoon; no cluster of visitors waiting to get into one of our popular restaurants and no sun-worshippers on our beach. It’s a very odd March by any measure, capped off this week with the Mayor of Fort Myers Beach, Anita Cereceda, begging visitors to stay home or go home if they’re already here. All thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the number of those testing positive for COVID-19 continues to grow in Lee County and Florida, both the Florida Governor and Lee County Board of County Commissioners have resisted calls to issue “stay-at-home” edicts.
The Fort Myers Beach Town Council declared a State of Emergency on March 13. On March 19, they issued a Declaration of Emergency Regulations, closing the beaches and beach access parking in the town. Lee County followed their lead, closing all of their beach parks and associated parking in the county, including Lynn Hall Park, the Fort Myers Beach Pier, Bowditch Point Park and Crescent Beach Park on Fort Myers Beach.
Governor Ron DeSantis has signed a flurry of Executive Orders beginning on March 1 with a Public Health Emergency, followed by a State of Emergency on March 9. Following President Trump and the CDC’s proclamation “15 Days to Slow the Spread” on March 16, DeSantis closed all Florida bars and restricted all restaurants to 50% capacity provided they follow the CDC guidance on “social distancing” meaning fewer than 10 people in one place, with 6 feet separation.
On March 20, DeSantis issued several Executive Orders, one allows local governments to meet, even if their rules require a quorum be physically present, opening the door to “virtual” meetings. Another allowed alcohol delivery with meals, provided the alcohol was in a sealed container. He also suspended all on-premise food consumption at restaurants, limiting them to take out or delivery. Gyms and fitness centers were ordered to close and all non-urgent medical or dental procedures were stopped.
This week, the Governor has focused on tracking and containing anyone fleeing to Florida from a community with “substantial community spread” specifically New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He described a situation where flights to Florida from areas where a mandatory shelter-in-place went into effect, had dramatically increased and voiced concern about those people “seeding” Florida with additional cases of COVID-19. By March 24, anyone who had flown from or arrived in Florida within the last 14 days from the New York area was instructed to notify the Board of Health and self-isolate for 14 days. That same day, he directed the Surgeon General to advise all people over 65 and those who fall under CDC guidelines for at-risk health conditions to stay home and limit their risk of COVID-19 exposure.
County Takes a Pass
Meanwhile Lee County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) held an Emergency Meeting on Wednesday, March 25 to discuss possible steps to contain the pandemic locally. Lee Health President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Lawrence Antonucci along with two senior Lee Health officers began the meeting by providing a snapshot of where the county is now with COVID-19 cases and where it expects to be in the next few weeks, utilizing a complex model and varying degrees of social distancing.
“At zero social distancing, we’d be overrun in 2-3 weeks. At 20, 40, 60% social distancing, we can see a manageable situation. We need maximum social distancing of 60%,” Antonucci explained. Chief Nursing Officer Lisa Sgarlata explained that the county is currently at about 30 – 37% social distancing.
Lee Health Chief Safety Officer Alex Daneshmand emphasized, “The earlier you expand social distancing, the more effect it will have.”
Antonucci warned the BoCC that if the county does not increase its social distancing, it will see a situation similar to Italy. “The world took 67 days to reach the first 100,000 cases. Then it took 11 days to reach 200,000 and 4 days to reach 300,000. And just 2 days to reach 400,000. “We don’t want to see that slope here and the only tool we have is social distancing.”
BoCC Chair Brian Hamman clarified, “60% (of social distancing) is really staying at home?” Antonucci agreed.
Mayors Ask for Limits
The mayor of Cape Coral, Joe Coviello, along with the mayor of Fort Myers, Randy Henderson, both spoke to the BoCC urging them to do what they could to flatten the curve of increasing local spread of the virus. Letters from Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane were read into the record, both asking for the BoCC to act to keep people at home to prevent the virus spreading.
Cereceda told the BoCC that Fort Myers Beach has been very direct in asking visitors to stay away for almost a week and assured them that she would follow CDC guidelines in the community. She urged the BoCC to close all non-essential county businesses and order residents to shelter-in-place. “The only way to protect us is to act now and implement an order similar to Orange County. Every moment of delay has the potential to cost lives,” she wrote. See the complete letter below.
The requests were not granted. Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said he preferred to educate the public and “talk to people when we’re out there,” rather than impose any new restrictions. He asked several questions about whether Lee Health would need an auxiliary medical facility.
Commissioner Ray Sandelli commented that our community should be able to learn from other communities, the ones who have issued stay at home orders.
Commissioner Frank Mann objected to any stay at home order, saying that small businesses would suffer, mentioning a body shop he’s familiar with that he didn’t feel was at much risk and whose owner could not afford to shut down.
He also objected to a suggestion that all parks be closed. He asked county staff to bring specific suggestions to the board at another Emergency Meeting they decided to hold on Monday, March 30 at 9:30am.
County Attorney Richard Wesch told the board that he had researched what other counties had done and had a draft resolution ready, though none of the four commissioners showed interest in reviewing it. Commissioner John Manning was not present.
RSW Health Checks
Mann asked County Manager Roger Desjarlais whether flights from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were being met at Southwest Regional Airport (RSW) and passengers informed of the state-mandated 14 day self-isolation rules. “How are we checking for New Yorkers coming down and bringing diseases with them?” he asked. Desjarlais explained that the initial governor’s order did not include RSW. Hamman added that he’d like to see that screening in place.
On Thursday, March 26, the Florida Department of Health was at RSW meeting passengers on flights from NY, NJ and CT at RSW
Mayor Cereceda: Stay Home
On Thursday, March 26, Mayor Cereceda shared an open letter to visitors asking them to stay home.
“If you are considering coming to Fort Myers Beach for vacation or recreation, we respectfully ask you to stay home. Normally, we welcome visitors and part-time residents to Fort Myers Beach, but during this COVID-19 pandemic, we have no alternative but to put our residents’ health and safety first.”
She asked those already here to head home as soon as possible. Hoteliers and vacation rental landlords were urged to send their visitors home, while acknowledging that it was a request, not an order.
“Our resources are limited,” she said before asking visitors to help the community beat COVID-19 as quickly as possible by staying home.
Mayor Cereceda’s letter to the BoCC March 25, 2020:
I send this note to you from my home where I have been isolated for the past 6 days. The town of Fort Myers Beach has been very public in asking visitors not to come to or community for almost a week now. We have closed our beaches, our hotels and restaurants are also closing. We have encouraged our residents to shelter in place but for essential services. I am going to continue to follow the CDC guidelines in the strictest way as is my community.
We are pleading with you to take the strongest step forward possible to protect and preserve the lives of all Lee County residents.
The only way to protect us is to act now and implement an order similar to Orange County. Every moment of delay has the potential to cost lives.
Please do not allow Lee County to become the next casualty in this global war on COVID-19. Close all county non-essential businesses and order our residents to shelter in place. Stop the flow of visitors to our area as they are increasing our levels of vulnerability every day. Please take bold measures now. The Town of Ft. Myers Beach stands with you and we are ready to assist in any way possible.
Anita Cereceda, Mayor
Town of Ft. Myers Beach