Lee County Closes Beaches


A Week of Growing Restrictions

Lee County on Wednesday evening, March 18, announced it would close all its Lee County beaches as well as the Fort Myers Beach Pier effective Thursday, March 19, at 6 p.m. County leaders took the action shortly after the conclusion of an Emergency Meeting by the Fort Myers Beach Town Council, who discussed but stopped short of implementing a similar measure.

The Lee County press release, “County-owned beaches and Fort Myers Beach Pier to Close at 6 p.m. on Thursday to Limit Spread of COVID-19,” states:

“County-owned beaches and the County-owned Fort Myers Beach Pier will close until further notice effective at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 19, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. This includes beach parking lots, restrooms, and County-owned beach access points.”

Among the ten County-owned beaches are those on Fort Myers Beach: Bowditch Point Park, Crescent Beach Family Park, Lynn Hall Memorial Beach Park, and Matanzas Pass Preserve, though the last is already shut for renovations resulting from Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Nearby closures include Bonita Beach Park, the Causeway Islands, and San Carlos / Bunche Beach Preserve, along with Bowman’s Beach Park, Little Hickory Island Beach Park, and Turner Beach Park.

All Beach Trolley and TRAM service on Fort Myers Beach is suspended as of 6pm, Thursday, March 19. Photo by Gary Mooney.

In the statement, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais announced that the closures “using Center for Disease Control guidance and at a time when many college-age students are on Spring Break or are in the area while taking online classes. While young people may not be as vulnerable to the symptoms of COVID-19 as older adults, they can be asymptomatic and spread the virus to others, including older adults and their own family members. Lee County will coordinate enforcement with the appropriate law agencies. Lee County is suspending as well LeeTran beach trolley and tram services effective Thursday at 6 p.m. For information, visit www.leegov.com/COVID-19.”

Council Emergency Meeting

The Fort Myers Beach Town Council continued to take unprecedented local steps in response to the global coronavirus pandemic with a Special Meeting on Wednesday, March 18, at 3:38 p.m. Council considered its “State of Local Emergency: Town Public Health & Safety Actions to Take to Reduce the Spread of COVID-19,” with Mayor Anita Cereceda, Vice Mayor Ray Murphy and Council members Rexann Hosafros and Joanne Shamp in Council Chambers, and Council member Bruce Butcher participating by telephone. Town Manager Roger Hernstadt personally assigned seats to each of the 14 people in attendance, to assure social distancing.

Cereceda stated that after numerous telephone calls to regional leaders, “last night I sent messages to Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief Matthew Love and the Town Manager, asking for this meeting. After further discussions with the Town Manager and Staff, we prepared a draft Proclamation that I will read, then will ask the individual Council members for their comments. We want this to be in the best interest of our residents, visitors and public health.”

Cereceda then read a proposed Proclamation that would add to the Town’s State of Emergency declaration of March 13, 2020. The proposal, Cereceda said, was a collaborative effort based on her conversations with other governmental leaders and Town staff. It proposed closing the beachfront and all Town-owned facilities, prohibiting any beach furniture on the sand, as well as sitting or lying on the sand (though walking in small groups would be permitted). It asked for all non-governmental entities to follow the most stringent guidelines related to groups of more than 10 and spacing.

Headed In This Direction

Murphy stated, “In my own mind, I suspected we were headed in this direction; I just did not know when! I am guided most by what Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health recommends, and every time I hear him lately, he comments that he would rather err on the side of safety, so I agree with him. We tried voluntary guidelines and that has not worked, so we are faced with the next step.”

Hosafros offered a different view. “I am not sure where to start! Our Town Attorney said he has not seen this, so that gives me pause, as you could consider that this is stretching our authority, though he assures me we are not. I read as well a copy of Governor Ron Desantis’ Executive Order and that does not seem to give us the authority either. I would like our Town Attorney to be here for this, though I do not fault him for that.” Town Attorney, John Herin, Jr., works for the Fox Rothschild law firm out of the Miami area. “I’m going to find big fault with him,” countered Cereceda. She added that Herin was informed of the proposal and was provided a copy of it.

Hosafros continued: “Maybe I misunderstood, but the wording ‘closing the beachfront’ are vague and broad, in my view, and vague and broad can cause panic. Then the very next paragraph is in direct conflict with closing the beach because it says you can walk the beach.” Cereceda suggested, “closing the beachfront to commercial activity,” but Hosafros replied, “I do not like writing this off the top of our heads! This does not make sense to me and I am not faulting you but this needs to be worded differently so this give me pause.”

Shamp tearfully advocated a much stronger position. Taking a moment to compose herself, she said, “my entire family is in healthcare and we are three weeks behind where Italy is right now. Some may accuse me of overreacting but this needs to be a lot tougher, as there will be a great deal of suffering ahead. What concerns me is that Lee County is not closing their parks within our municipal limits. This does not go far enough.”

By telephone, Butcher asked if the Town would close its parking, with Cereceda responding that the plan as of yet does not do that. He inquired if it asks for restaurant closures, with Cereceda saying, “no sir!” Butcher said that “my thinking is like Rexann’s. We have people in condos and hotels who need to eat and that is a big problem, so we need to work out a lot of logistics here. How do we enforce anyone walking the beach if we ban the beach? If you do, they will walk the sidewalk and how do you keep them six feet apart there? If you ban them from the beach, they will jam hotel pools and decks!”

Shamp stressed, “the people who live here ought to be able to go to the store and buy what we need. We must send the message that we are following the CDC recommendations and immediately implement stricter measures. There should be no commercial business seaward of the Environmentally Critical (EC) Line.” Cereceda and Hosafros did not think the Town could keep people from walking the beach, but Shamp said, “actually you can; that is the most effective thing to do!” The Mayor countered, “Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said he can’t help with that, as his resources are already tapped.” “We need to take a hardline position,” emphasized Shamp, “because I don’t know what will happen to our healthcare system.”

Cereceda suggested asking Lee County to close its beach accesses and Fort Myers Beach parks by Thursday at 6 p.m., and to consult with the LCSO for further assistance. The Town would close its beach access as well, with Shamp requesting the provision to halt all beach business activity seaward of the EC Line. Cereceda said she would like another Emergency Meeting on Thursday, March 19, to continue to refine these and other issues at 3 p.m. Butcher said he wants to request that Lee County close the Fort Myers Beach Pier. Shamp stated, “we understand how painful this is for everyone, especially economically, but we are all impacted by this one way or another. Though it is painful, it is the right thing. As Dr. Sanjay Gupta said, ‘how I behave effects your health and how you behave effects my health!”

Heavy Heart but Easy Decision

Following a brief break to revise the Proclamation, Council agreed upon:

“The Town Council will request Lee County to close their parks and parking within the Town’s jurisdiction; Bowditch, Lynn Hall, Crescent Beach, and the County pier; and all County-maintained beach accesses on North Estero.

“The Town of Fort Myers Beach will close all accesses to Town parking; and

“All Town-owned properties and associated activities; Bay Oaks, the Community Pool, Newton Beach Park, Mound House, and;

“Any commercial activity in the Environmentally Critical Zone (the beachfront).

“This will be effective starting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, 2020, through Tuesday, April 21, 2020, at 6 p.m.”

Council unanimously approved the amended Proclamation and will meet in another Emergency Session on Thursday, March 19, at 3 p.m.

“Be very, very aware,” cautioned Cereceda, “that all this could change tomorrow if different circumstances arise. Know that we make this decision with heavy hearts, yet it is an easy decision to make all at the same time, to protect as many people as we can, and I think we are all pretty clear on this!” Council adjourned at 5:03 p.m. By 6 p.m. Lee County had released its order to close its beach parks and parking lots, not only on Fort Myers Beach, but throughout the county.

Unprecedented Week

Friday, March 13

The March 18 Emergency Council Meeting continued perhaps the most tumultuous and historic week in the history of Fort Myers Beach. It all began with what was to be the last meeting of this version of Council on the bizarrely-appropriate Friday the 13th! The previous day, Governor DeSantis encouraged local jurisdictions to negate any event that may draw a crowd of 250 or more people, to mimic the national effort to flatten out the COVID-19 health curve so the virus does not overwhelm the American healthcare system. In addition to the recommendation of Governor DeSantis, Major League Baseball suspended their schedules, including the immediate stoppage of Spring Training.

Town Council began their meeting by canceling the 62nd Annual Fort Myers Beach Lions Shrimp Festival and rescinding all permits associated with it. By the end of the meeting, they revised their action to “suspend” the permits to allow the Lions to reschedule later this year.

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt was authorized to enforce what, at that time, were expected to be changing guidance from Federal, State and County authorities on protective steps to protect the public from COVID-19 spread. On Friday, March 13, that guidance was to cancel any events that would attract 250 or more people. That number has dropped over the past week. On Thursday, March 19, it was ten people, with an emphasis on maintaining a 6-foot separation.

Council also declared a local State of Emergency in that meeting, that allows the Town to seek emergency funding for any costs they incur related to the pandemic.

Despite cancelling the Shrimp Festival, Fort Myers Beach remained packed over the weekend, including the continued controversial performances by the “Cincinnati Firefighters” at the Lani Kai Island Resort to benefit the Araba Shriners.

Monday, March 16

Over the weekend, the Center for Disease Control recommended the cancellation of all events of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks, and on Monday, President Donald Trump lowered that to 10 people or more. That morning, Cereceda directed the Town Manager to suspend all permits for beach vendor activities like parasailing, jet skis, and beach chairs that tend to be the hub of activities that can draw a crowd and can be of potential harm to the public.

Another recommendation was that restaurants reduce their seating capacity to 50% or less, and space their tables apart by at least six feet for personal safety and space. The Town Manager asked that all island restaurants do the same, to keep Fort Myers Beach businesses open as long as possible, in a responsibly way, but there was no mandate at this point to close bars or restaurants, despite other Florida and national communities imposing those restrictions.

The Town closed the historic Mound House but still allowed it to conduct kayak tours and Newton Park Beach Walks that attract small groups. While the Town closed the Bay Oaks gymnasium and Senior programs, some activities, like the pickleball courts, remained open, along with childcare programs but for Fort Myers Beach families only.

Tuesday, March 17

Governor DeSantis that morning signed an Executive Order that bars and nightclubs would close that day for at least the next 30 days at 5 p.m., while formally instituting the restaurant 50% capacity and six-foot table separation restrictions. The Governor further encouraged restaurants to promote the use of delivery and takeout rather than onsite options to limit the risk to their patrons.

The Town Manager delivered to island businesses the Governor’s Executive Order with the expectation that all would comply. If any do not, Town Code Enforcement will cite them, the Town will call for Lee County Sheriff’s Office assistance to close them, and it will report them to the State for noncompliance that may result in loss of their liquor license.

Another restriction from the Governor’s Office is that beachgoers restrict crowd sizes to 10 people or less, and remain six feet apart for personal safety, with Town Code Enforcement to mandate that.

Throughout the day, Fort Myers Beach voters joined all other Floridians in going to the polls, where they elected three new Town Council members who will take office on Monday, April 6: Jim Atterholt, Dan Allers and Bill Veach, with Butcher losing his reelection bid by placing fourth out of the seven candidates. Term limits prevented Cereceda from seeking reelection, while Shamp chose not to run. Murphy and Hosafros remain on Council through November 2022, receiving an 8-month extension to their terms due to the overwhelming passage of the two Town Referendums that increase Council terms from 3 to 4 years and shifts Town elections to November to coincide with those of other Lee County municipalities as well as those at the County, State, and National levels.

The sitting Town Council will remain in charge until the April 6 Town Council meeting when new members are sworn in. If any Special Meetings of the council are called to deal with local conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the meetings will be announced on the Town’s website, fmbgov.com.

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