Clearing the Town
For the third time in less than two weeks, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council held an Emergency Meeting on Monday afternoon, March 30, to discuss additional steps to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Their session followed 90 minutes after Lee County Commissioners opted against a countywide “Stay At Home” order, despite a letter from Mayor Anita Cereceda urging them to do so. By the time Council ended 2-1/2 hours later, the panel enacted a Resolution banning all Fort Myers Beach transient rentals until the cusp of The Fourth of July Holiday Weekend.
With Town Hall closed due to coronavirus precautions, the five Council members met online from their own individual homes, along with additional feeds from Town Manager Roger Hernstadt, Town Attorney John Herin, Jr. and Town Clerk Michelle Mayher, so when viewers watched them on Comcast Channel 98 or the Town’s YouTube feed, they resembled a grown-up version of “The Brady Bunch” introduction! Council’s first action was to unanimously pass a Resolution adopting the Executive Order issued by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to allow virtual meetings during the coronavirus outbreak. The technology allowed citizens to weigh in for “Public Comment,” though the process required early trial-&-error before settling in.
Even before Council discussed the Resolution to halt Fort Myers Beach transient lodging, Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, intoned that “island hoteliers would like to see you end rentals, so everyone is on the same playing field. Almost all are under 5% occupancy, with just one or two at 5 to 10%, so they would rather all shut down rather than just one or two staying open.” Cereceda read the draft Resolution stating that rentals would include all public lodging establishments such as hotels, motels, weekly and monthly vacation rentals, condominiums, time shares, and all other rentals that Council later amended to include the Red Coconut RV Park and stricter time share regulations.
The Resolution is effective at 12:01am on Tuesday, March 31, and remains in effect until Council rescinds it. Renters in their accommodations prior to March 31 can remain for their original reservation, but cannot extend it. Rental facilities that do not cancel reservations from March 31 forward are subject to a $5,000 fine. Property owners can remain in their units, and it would not apply to those in law enforcement or the medical profession.
Vice Mayor Ray Murphy stated, “I am all in favor, as this is not only the right thing to do, but we are basically there.” “I am in favor,” agreed Council member Joanne Shamp, who brought up two significant cases. “There is a single-family home rental where people refuse to leave because they tested positive for COVID-19 and are under quarantine; another rental group arrived from New York, but rather than obeying the two-week quarantine, took over the condominium swimming pool!”
Council member Bruce Butcher stated, “I am puzzled by the duration, as it is open-ended. People want to make reservations for 2021 but can’t.” Cereceda said she received numerous recommendations, from 28 days until November. Shamp stressed that “the Florida Surgeon General does not expect the virus to peak until at least mid-May; this is not weeks but months.” Butcher suggested 90 days, with Council member Rexann Hosafros finding that acceptable. Shamp preferred 120 days, as “medical officials say the pandemic can come in waves. We may have a wonderful Labor Day if we are fortunate!” Council unanimously approved the Rental Declaration beginning March 31 for 90 days, with regular review planned.
Social Distancing & The Beach
Council’s final action was to unanimously pass a strictly aspirational Declaration that memorializes recommendations not only from Council but State and National leaders to continue proper handwashing, Social Distancing at 6 feet or greater, no gatherings larger than 10 people, and limiting trips outside of resident’s home to essential services. The Declaration does not include enforcement fines or an expiration.
Hosafros inquired about allowing Town residents to walk Fort Myers Beach from 7 to 9 a.m., “as I think this is reasonable.” Shamp disagreed, arguing, “The headline will be ‘Fort Myers Beach is partially reopen to public activity’ and we cannot do that!” Hosafros countered, “I said to residents; not the public.” Shamp replied, “There is no way to enforce that. Will Lee County Deputies and Town Staff check driver’s licenses? Now is not the time,” with Butcher, Cereceda and Murphy agreeing.
Council discussed people congregating at restaurant takeout locations, setting up chairs in public parking lots, the homeless and underserved populations, boating restrictions, condominium swimming pools, and how staff will respond to resident complaints. Council ended by noting that the new Town Council who takes office on Monday, April 6, can amend regulations at any time.