Town Closes Its Beaches

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Action Matches Lee County

Thursday, March 19, 6pm.

For the second time in two days, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council held an Emergency Meeting on Thursday afternoon, March 19, to implement measures to combat the local effects of the global coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Its major action at this session was to match the initiative taken the prior day by Lee County that closed its three Fort Myers Beach locations. Council debated doing this at its March 18 Emergency Meeting for the remainder of the 7-mile barrier island, but stopped short. On Thursday, it passed its “Declaration of Emergency Regulations” by a 4 to 1 vote effective at 6 p.m., no one can be on any part of Fort Myers Beach until an undetermined future date at the risk of up to a $5,000 penalty.

Roughly 20 people attended Thursday’s “Special Meeting,” including The Island Sand Paper and several other media outlets, with Town Manager Roger Hernstadt once again personally assigning seats to each, as he did the previous day, to assure social distancing. Mayor Anita Cereceda began the emergency meeting as she did the day before, stating that she spoke with numerous local and regional leaders. “I will start with a very strong comment that is a unified comment that you will hear from Sanibel and Bonita Springs and Cape Coral and Boca Grande, and that is that Spring Break is Over! I would like Fort Myers Beach to match Lee County in closing our beaches today at 6 p.m., and will read the ‘Declaration of Emergency Regulations’ draft, then would like comments from Town Council members on particular adjustments.”

Clear Up The Confusion

Vice Mayor Ray Murphy stated, “Many people asked me since yesterday to clear up the confusion over whether they can walk the beach for their morning and evening walks and also if they can go for a swim in the Gulf or for that matter, fish.” Council member Rexann Hosafros said, “I agree with Ray, in that I spent the last 24 hours telling people they are allowed to walk on the beach, and I thought that might be in here but I do not see that. I think we need to stop doing things, as the changes we did yesterday are sufficient; we did a good job yesterday and people are going home.”

Council member Joanne Shamp disagreed. “We are not doing enough; if we say close the beach, then go ahead and close them, as we are here to save lives and our local healthcare system. We need to inform the public about this through electronic message signs at our entry bridges and in high density places like Times Square, Santini Marina Plaza, our beach accesses and the Town website. We need to update our Hurricane Pass program, should we need to regulate island entry, to protect the public,” with Cereceda adding, “I am getting many questions about that as well.”

Shamp continued, “We should keep our grocery store and gas stations and convenience stores and Post Office open, but prohibit public parking, and convert that near restaurants for takeout food service. Retail establishments should close, to eliminate additional exposure, and that includes Times Square as well as parking under the Matanzas Pass Bridge and along Old San Carlos Boulevard, in case we need those spots for drivethrough food pickup service. If you really want to stop Spring Break, then implement a curfew at 10 p.m., as the Spring Break kids won’t like that and will go home. I know I am the most conservative voice up here, but the safety of our community overrides everything else, so I will continue to be that voice. This is a Town of 7,000 people and we must protect them!”

Council member Bruce Butcher said he did not feel the draft Declaration was strong enough in its wording to close the beach: “It does not say the beach will close, so what does that mean?” Hosafros felt the Town could keep the beach open as long as beachgoers respected the latest CDC stipulations of remaining in groups of 10 people or less with at least six feet of space between groups for social distancing, noting that “I was on the beach earlier today and it did not seem like anyone was bothering anyone.”

“I was too,” countered Cereceda: “At 10 a.m. it was empty; at Noon, it was packed! At 6 p.m., there will no longer be beach tram or trolley service, including on Sanibel and Bonita Springs. This Declaration says you will not be able to walk on or swim from the beach after 6 p.m. today. We tried to be nimble yesterday and it did not work, so our citizens and guests may not utilize the beach in any way!” Hosafros stated that if people cannot walk the beach, “they will walk the sidewalk, so what is the difference?” Murphy noted, “On the beach, there is a tendency for people to congregate, the way they do not do on the sidewalk. If we say you can walk the beach, you not only have our residents but guests and tourists, and the next thing you know, they will be setting up on the beach. There is only so much we can do, but we can do this.” Hosafros asked, “So you call in the National Guard?” “That is the next question – enforcement,” stated Murphy.

We Must Close The Beach!

Cereceda implored her colleagues “to support the direction of other Lee County municipalities, Lee County, and our State and Congressional leadership, and that message is to close the beach until further notice. I understand what Rexann is saying, but the fact of the matter is today we know more than we did yesterday, so if you are here on Spring Break, please think about our community and go home, as we need to protect our place, as you are taxing our public services. My Father used to say you are never a little bit pregnant; either you are or you aren’t, so if we allow people to stroll the beach, we are not closing the beach, so we cannot send a mixed message. We must close the beach to signify that Spring Break is over! We are all trying to get this as right as possibly, as this is not about economic losses but about lives!” Shamp thanked the Mayor, saying, “You have never been more eloquent at such a critical time!”

Murphy asked the Town Manager how he could implement this Declaration. “I talked to the West District Commander of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office,” said Hernstadt. “He will assign deputies to ride with the Town’s Beach And Street Enforcement (BASE) Officers, to get out the message, until they are confident BASE Officers can patrol the beach on their own. We will set up barricades and post signs at the beach accesses.” Butcher stated, “I was with Rexann yesterday about allowing people to walk the beach, but now the objective is to get everyone to go.”

Cereceda hopes Council will not close Times Square, but allow it to remain open under “the Governor’s guidelines of social distancing and limited occupancy. I have two stores there and am consolidating them down to one and I do not allow any more than 10 people through the door at any one time, but now there are never more than 10 people trying to enter. Every business there is following the guidelines and taking this very seriously.” “I am fine with sticking with the Governor’s recommendations,” said Murphy. “I hope people do not think we are giving the restaurants there preferential treatment, but people have to eat.”

Cereceda summed up, “We must say that the beach is closed – PERIOD! It was grey yesterday, but black and white today.” She then turned to Hosafros and said, “I know you are frustrated by this.” Hosafros admitted, “I feel a great deal of pressure to make this a unanimous vote but we are going way too far in telling people who live here that they cannot walk down their street to their beach access and walk down the beach. This feels too much like Martial Law and grates every fiber of my being, so I have a great deal of conflict.”

Cereceda stated, “You and Joanne represent many people’s points-of-view, so if in good conscience you cannot support this, I can understand that, as this is an event in all of our lives like no other.” Shamp added, “You feel this goes too far; I feel it does not go far enough, so I understand your concerns,” before Cereceda encouraged, “Vote your conscience!”

Make The Tough Call!

Council took roughly a 15-minute break to allow the Town Attorney to revise the “Declaration of Emergency Regulations.” Upon reviewing these, Butcher noted that “I still have a problem with Section E, about closing the beach, because it does not say that no one can be on the beach; it needs to say clearly we are closing the beach! I do not like the way this reads.” The Town Attorney suggested adding, “all activities and persons.” “Are not allowed on the beach and sand,” noted Butcher. “No person or activities are allowed on the beach, and I want that in capital letters or bold.” Cereceda then asked Chief Matthew Love of the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department for his comments and suggestions.

“Thank you for your leadership,” Chief Love began. “A lot of your comments may seem extreme but this is all about public safety, and we are charged with maintaining the public health of this community and we do not take that lightly. You can sense the tension in my voice because we have a duty to protect this community and there are challenges to our resources. We need to run a public healthcare system, so I appreciate your efforts to remove the public from the beach. This is reminiscent of what we do in a hurricane, where we have to make the tough decision about when to let the community come back on the island and when not to, as we have to guarantee that we can protect them when they come back, and we are facing that same type of challenge now, with the large amounts of people who are here for Spring Break on the beach.

“Our resources are being strapped right now, meaning we have to attend to patients in a different way than we are used to treating them, so this is difficult for our folks and the community, and we need to protect our first responders and not overwhelm the healthcare system, so I applaud your efforts. I know on the one hand it is difficult for you to implement these restrictions, but on the other, it is quite simple, as government needs to step up in times like this and make the tough call! We must protect and maintain the quality of service for our community, so please give the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department everything within your ability to allow us to best take care of our community, as it is up to every one of us here to do that!”

“Declaration of Emergency Regulations”

Cereceda read the revised “Declaration of Emergency Regulations” into the record:

The Declaration of Emergency Regulations takes “whatever prudent actions necessary to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the community, resolves that:

1: The following events and activities with the Town of Fort Myers Beach are postponed, cancelled, closed, or suspended.

A: All regular meetings of the Town boards, including all advisory and statutory boards, Town Committees, and Town working groups.

B: All Town special events

C: All public gatherings of any type, whether organized or otherwise, of greater than ten people are prohibited.

D: All restaurants and other like entertainment facilities and businesses shall adhere to the latest state executive orders and mandates by Governor Ron DeSantis.

E: All beaches and beach accesses in the Town of Fort Myers Beach are closed. No persons or activities are permitted on the beach and within the Environmentally Critical Zoning District of the Town (generally seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line). The beach is defined as the area of sand along the Gulf of Mexico that extends landward from the mean low-water line to the place where there is a marked change in material or physiographic form, or to the line of permanent vegetation, within the territorial boundaries of the Town of Fort Myers Beach from Bowditch Point to San Carlos Point.

F: All Town Parks, including recreational and cultural facilities and programs, are closed.

G: All residents and visitors of the Town of Fort Myers Beach are directed to comply with these emergency regulations and necessary measures, which shall be strictly enforced, and to cooperate with public officials and public safety personnel in executing any emergency operational plans, and to obey and comply with the lawful direction of all properly identified public officers.

2: In accordance with applicable state law, the Code of Ordinances of the Town of Fort Myers Beach, and the Land Development Code of Fort Myers Beach, any violation of any rule or regulation issued and set forth herein may be punishable by a fine of up to $5,000. This will be effective starting 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, 2020, until further notice.

The full Declaration of Emergency Regulations can be seen on the town’s website, fmbgov.com

With Luck & God’s Help

Cereceda made the motion to approve, with Shamp seconding, then simply stating, “I concur.” Murphy added, “with luck and the help of God, this will be a temporary situation.” Hosafros however noted, “the Declaration states ‘whatever prudent action is necessary,’ I think we are exceeding prudent action and trampling on their rights. It’s exceeding what we should be doing…I am in favor of most of this, but cannot agree with that section, or the  $5,000 fine for being on the beach or your own backyard, so this exceeds what we should do. Purely because of Section E, I cannot support it.” The Roll Call vote culminated in a 4 to 1 decision to approve the “Declaration of Emergency Regulations,” with Hosafros against.

“Before I close this meeting,” Cereceda concluded, “even though this was a 4 to 1 vote, I hope everyone respects the decisions made by all five of us, as we do stand together. I want to be abundantly clear, we are saying that Spring Break is effectively over in the Town of Fort Myers Beach and we encourage Spring Breakers to please return home.” Murphy added, “We love having that youthful life here, but we are not only telling the ones here to go home, but anybody up north who is thinking about still coming down here to stay home, because our beach is not the place for you right now. In the future, we will welcome you back with open arms, but not right now!”