Mound House and Bay Oaks Reopen

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Pool Under Renovation

Like almost all Fort Myers Beach businesses and attractions, the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of the historic Mound House and Bay Oaks Recreational Center in mid-March. Once Florida Governor Ron DeSantis began lifting his COVID-19 restrictions, however, the Town reopened both on Tuesday, May 19, but with social distancing guidelines to help limit the spread of the virus.

“While the Town is happy to reopen the Mound House and Bay Oaks, there is no doubt attendance is down for each quite of bit from this time last year,” related Alison Giesen, the Town’s Director of Culture, Parks & Recreation. “Other than that, the reopenings are going smoothly, with new policies and procedures to enhance the visitor experience and safety. So far, the public seems to appreciate all the extra steps we are taking.”

While the Mound House has resumed its normal off-season schedule of Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., “Bay Oaks is now open only for the weight and cardio rooms Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” Giesen explained. “We do not accept walk-ins for those, so you must make a reservation by calling 239-765-4222 at least two hours in advance, as we limit them to 4 people for 45 minutes from the top of each hour, with staff using the final 15 minutes for sanitation between sessions.”

Giesen happy reported that not only is Bay Oaks hosting Summer Camps this year, “but they are already full! Our counselors went through extensive COVID-19 training, will cordon off their own areas for things like ‘Art & Crafts,’ and take special precautions for water sports activities. Due to social distancing, we have slightly smaller groups this year, but with only four less kids than previous seasons, so we are proud and excited we can offer these to our residents. Sadly, however, we cannot do Mound House Summer Camps, as our partner, ‘Super Science,’ is only hosting them virtually this year.”

The Mound House

“Mound House tours are of the ‘walk-through’ variety only,” Giesen explained. “That means we do not have docents or volunteers personally leading groups through the home. We limit visitors inside the house to no more than eight people, with staff and volunteers stationed outside to answer questions and provide details. We removed chairs in the video introduction room, do not let anyone touch the interactive stations, have social distancing marks throughout the museum as well as directional arrows so guests only move in one way, and we recommend that visitors wear a mask at all times. A piece of good news is we recently reopened the Museum Store, with the same hours as the Mound House.”

Mound House and Bay Oaks Reopen-Fort Myers Beach
The Mound House is now open for self-guided tours. Photo by M. Layfield

In addition to the Museum Store, the Mound House is reinstituting a few of its most popular education and recreation programs, such as “Mangroves By Kayak Tour” and “Family Fun Kayak Tours,” “Shell Mound Tours” and “Gardens of the Mound House.” “We will do these under Center for Disease Control (CDC) and social distancing guidelines,” she offered. “Two rules are that we limit kayak tours to a maximum of 8 participants per program, and in this case, we do require that everyone wear masks while they are onshore and during the kayak launch portion of the adventure.”

Another well-known event the Mound House began again, but offsite, are the “Guided Beach Walks” at Newton Beach Park at 4650 Estero Boulevard every Tuesday and Thursday, weather permitting, at 9 a.m. Meet under the thatched hut before proceeding onto the sand to explore the natural treasurers on Fort Myers Beach through a guided walk. Since you examine what you find on the beach that morning, no two are ever the same, with the group usually walking one mile or less. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses, appropriate clothing, shoes and hats. CDC and social distancing guidelines apply, with the recommendation that all participants wear a mask. Free with no advance registration necessary; parking $3-per-hour. “We’ve hosted the ‘Guided Beach Walks’ on Tuesdays for several years now,” she commented, “but Thursdays are new this year, so if you want to enjoy a smaller group outing, I recommend those!”

When closed during the state-mandated COVID-19 shutdown, “staff worked on National Recreation & Park Association training as well as on an accreditation from that organization to better serve the Fort Myers Beach community,” said Giesen. “Along with this was American Alliance of Museums training and further accreditation from the Florida Society of Ethical Ecotourism, with most of these activities through ZOOM. Additional staff outlets were to achieve Strategic Plan-defined goals for all facilities. The employees created new activity cards to enhance the museum experience, a new visitor scavenger hunt to participate in on the grounds, teacher pre – and post – visit activities, and summer camp guidelines.”

An Even Better Experience

The Mound House, at 451 Connecticut Street with overflow parking at 216 Connecticut Street, is the oldest standing structure on Estero Island and now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Mound House mission is to preserve, interpret and share 2,000 years of cultural and environmental history of Fort Myers Beach and Southwest Florida. The Town of Fort Myers Beach operates the Mound House as a museum complex that offers numerous educational programs each month, including tours to explore the 2,000-year-old Calusa Indian Shell Mound, beach walks and kayak eco-tours.

The museum is open to the public for visitors to walk through for a self-guided experience, with social distancing guidelines in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. On its special “Summer Savings” program, all museum admissions for Florida as well as Town residents have a 50% discount; normal admission is $10 for ages 13 & up, $8 for students with IDs, $5 ages 6 to 12, and 5 & under free. It is open Tuesdays, Thursdays & Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with additional days in season. Due to the COVID-19 situation, however, all Mound House hours and programs are subject to change, so call or see the website in advance: 239-765-0865 www.moundhouse.org.

Giesen noted the Mound House differences in our pre- and post-coronavirus worlds: “While the Mound House was always safe and clean, now we ensure your visit meets all CDC guidelines. All these extra safety steps can be time consuming, but we take them happily so you enjoy an even better museum experience.”

Bay Oaks Recreational Center

“When we allow people in the weight and cardio rooms, we not only limit participants to no more than four in any hour-long timeframe, with the staggered start times, but mandate that there is at least six feet of social distancing between each person,” Giesen explained. “While we use the final 15 minutes of each hour block for staff to clean and sanitize the weight and cardio rooms, we ask all who are working out there to please clean the machines yourself after you use them, as an extra layer of protection for your fellow participants, as every little bit helps in the coronavirus battle. One of the many training exercises the Bay Oaks staff did during the shutdown was on how to properly clean our equipment to current COVID-19 standards.”

In addition to the weight and cardio rooms, “Bay Oaks is able to resume some of its other exercise programs,” she reported. “Some of our instructors are back, though not as many as we had prior to the shutdown, and they are offering their classes outside. The baseball fields are available for non-league play for no more than 10 players at a time, and we still close the bleacher and dugout areas, and of course the main gymnasium remains shut, though the grounds, tennis courts and pickleball courts are open in accordance with social distancing and CDC guidelines. We encourage everyone to call before coming to Bay Oaks, because our summer camps that began on June 15 may utilize some of these facilities at certain points throughout the day, so check on their availability.”

While significant aspects of the Mound House and Bay Oaks are open, that is not yet true for the Fort Myers Beach Community Pool. “The Lee County Health Department required repairs to the lap pool,” Giesen stated. “We coordinated these with the COVID-19 closure, but unfortunately, the contractor estimates that these will not be done for a few more months. To me, this delay works to our advantage, as other pools and water parks are now reopening, so we can study those to see what works the best, to offer the safest possible atmosphere.”

Giesen stressed that, whether at the Mound House, Bay Oaks, Newton Beach Park or Summer Camps, “the safety of our community is our #1 priority! We are really proud of the steps we are taking to ensure your good health and look forward to continuing to be of service to you as we all move ahead together.”