Town State of Emergency Declared

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Edited to clarify that Town Council did not vote to approve a $7,000 shrimp purchase from the FMB Lions Club or the suggestion that the Lions could proceed with their Shrimp Queen crowning.

Shrimp Fest, Parades Cancelled

Perhaps it was appropriate the Fort Myers Beach Town Council met on Friday the 13th because the session may have been the most surreal in its almost 24-year history! Before the historic meeting concluded nearly 7-1/2 hours later, Council due to the threat of the ever-growing international coronavirus COVID19, declared the Town in a State of Emergency, cancelled its signature annual showcase as well as the traditional St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and empowered Town Staff to examine and likely revoke the permits of several other Town Special Events through Easter!

“Well, here we are on Friday the 13th,” began Mayor Anita Cereceda with an encouraging smile to the roughly 30 people in attendance, with the Town taking the precaution of setting up roughly 20 additional seats before the lobby television should anyone feel the need for precautionary elbowroom.

Although not on the formal agenda, Cereceda wasted no time in getting to the primary topic: Whether to revoke the Special Event permit for the 62nd annual Shrimp Festival, the Town’s largest event and a fundraiser hosted by the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club, scheduled for the next two days, on Saturday & Sunday March 14 & 15. The previous day, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis encouraged local jurisdictions to cancel any event that may draw a crowd of 250 or more people, to mimic the national effort to flatten out the COVID19 infection curve so the virus does not overwhelm the American healthcare system.

“This weighed heavily on me,” said the Mayor. “I met yesterday with Lee County officials and the Visitor & Convention Bureau at the Emergency Operations Center and learned a lot! Our leaders from the Governor on down are making decisions in a calm and resolute manner and you should all take great comfort from that. I would like to hear from each Council member what you feel about this weekend, and my greatest hope for this morning is we speak with one voice for our community to hear.”

Cereceda turned to Vice Mayor Ray Murphy, who is the Chairman of the 22nd annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade scheduled for Monday morning, March 16. “Let me preface my remarks,” he began, “by saying the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is cancelled,” with that drawing a murmur from the audience. “This was not a hard decision to make yesterday morning, especially after Naples cancelled their parade and with growing national news of how everything was shutting down for the foreseeable future.”

We Love the Shrimp Fest

Murphy then addressed the Shrimp Festival: “We love the Shrimp Fest and love the people who put it on and all who participate and attend, as we all grew up with it. We are cancelling the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that draws a much smaller crowd. The Shrimp Festival will put a lot of people together in such a small area and this is the very case that can spread the coronavirus. In these dangerous times, in my opinion, we must err on the side of safety for our citizens. I don’t want to be the one to make the call to cancel the Shrimp Festival, so I will listen to what the other Council members say, but I feel this is the direction we are heading to as the most prudent, so if that is the will of Council, I will support it.”

Council member Rexann Hosafros brought an opposite opinion. “I take this seriously, as we all do, however I am a big believer in staying in my lane…In my opinion, we should leave it up to the people who organize the Shrimp Festival as to whether or not to cancel at this point, as I understand they are meeting right now as well, so let them decide as to what to do with their event.”

Council member Joanne Shamp countered that position: “This is a very unique situation, as this is an international and national pandemic and to help halt its spread, the only way we know how so far is to limit the contact of people, to flatten the curve and not overwhelm the healthcare system. I love the Shrimp Festival but the overwhelming role of government and this Council is the safety of everyone here, so cancelling the event is what we must do!” Council member Bruce Butcher differed: “I am with Rexann a little bit. Part of this is up to the individual if you want to go, though my biggest concern is the Parade, then everyone in Lynn Hall Park gathered together. Why aren’t the parade people stepping up to make the appropriate decision?”

Cereceda responded, “I understand they are watching right now, to hear our direction. This is about public safety and I spent the better part of yesterday thinking about this, and prudent personal responsibility and safety should be our uppermost objective and paramount importance, as much as the Shrimp Festival means to this community. I considered a compromise, such as proceed with the Parade Saturday but cancel Sunday events, but then found myself discouraging a friend from attending for her own safety, and I must have that same concern for everyone. As much as we want this weekend to go on, we must cancel this event! I tried to convince myself we will all be OK if we are just super careful, as this is the most difficult decision I have made in my last six years in office, but then Chief Matthew Love of the FMB Fire Department said to me that sometimes you must make the decision for people to protect them.”

Public Safety is #1

Murphy requested that Butcher and Hosafros “unite behind the Mayor, as the Lions Club is looking to us for clarity and responsible direction. They are all good people, but they know in their heart of hearts that cancelling is the right decision, so let’s support the Mayor and we will get through this together, like we recently did with the water crisis.”

Hosafros expressed surprise at the Vice Mayor’s remark “that the Lions Club is looking to us for guidance, as I did not get that from the Mayor. They should be open to doing the right thing, so let’s defer this matter until later in the meeting, until they can meet and let them make the decision.” Cereceda replied that, “I agree it is the Lions Club permit but it is our Town – it is our Town! It is not the responsibility of the Lions Club to do the right thing for our Town!” With that, Cereceda made a motion to rescind the Shrimp Festival permit, with Shamp seconding.

Murphy attempted a compromise: “At the risk of speaking with a unified voice, I am OK with Rexann’s request to wait a few hours, as we will be here all day, so let the Lions Club mull this over and let us know how they feel. If not, we can make our decision for them.” Shamp quickly countered, “Public safety is #1! We worry about people crossing the street and getting hit by cars and this is no different. The Governor declared a State of Emergency, encouraging cancelling events with 250 or more people, so we should not waiver on this,” with Cereceda adding, “we will not waiver on this!” Hosafros replied that “we are not wavering; we are just giving the Lions Club a little more time,” but Butcher said, “if the Governor advised to cancel events with more than 250 people, that is it!” The Motion than unanimously passed.

Town State of Emergency

After conducting the posted agenda for the next six hours, Council returned to public safety near the end of the day. Cereceda suggested the Town “declare a local State of Emergency, similar to what we do for a hurricane.” Hosafros agreed, “This is on our checklist of things to do whenever we face an emergency, whether it is over the environment or otherwise.” Cereceda speculated, “Some people may say we are doing this through fear and anxiety, but those are the wrong emotions to have right now, though God knows people are frightened. We do this to be proactive and not to create unrest in any way, but because it is prudent to do this.” Shamp said she felt it “essential, in case we need assistance later, so we don’t get bogged down.” With that, Council unanimously declared a Town State of Emergency.

Cereceda then looked toward brighter days: “Perhaps we jumped the gun on rescinding the Shrimp Festival permit; what if we just suspend it instead? That way, should the Lions Club reschedule it for the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend or whenever at some future point, they do not have to go through the whole process again.” Council then unanimously reversed their earlier vote to rescind the Shrimp Festival permit, then a moment later unanimously approved suspending it instead.

Special Events Cancelled Through April 12

Cereceda noted, “The Fort Myers Beach Community Foundation cancelled its upcoming fashion show,” with Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, adding, “The Friends of Lovers Key cancelled their luau and may cancel their next concert, and the Chamber cancelled our ‘Coffee Connection’ on April 2.” Cereceda said, “This brings me to one we recently approved – the Cincinnati Firefighters Fundraiser at the Lani Kai Island Resort.” Liszak suggested that Council “should not just cancel that one permit; but do it across the board.” Town Manager Roger Hernstadt agreed, “We should treat all events the same.” Shamp inquired, “Over what timeframe?” Town Attorney John Herin, Jr., stated, “Most local governments are suspending activities for the next 30 days.”

Hosafros suggested that Town Staff and not Council do this, “on a permit-by-permit basis, using the Governor’s directive of 250 or more people. That way, they may not have to cancel small weddings.” She also noted that the guidance from the state may change and staff can more easily respond to that change. Shamp noted that “30 days gets us through Easter, basically the rest of the busy season.” Cereceda wondered about a two-week timeframe or perhaps through the end of March, but Shamp asked, “Why leave people wondering?” Council then unanimously approved this policy through April 13, with the expectation that it be revisited at the next Council meeting on April 6.

Cereceda asked if Council should schedule a special meeting for the week of March 16, but Hosafros suggested they leave that decision to the Town Manager and Mayor, if they feel there is a need. The Town Attorney stated, “Governor DeSantis is considering the option of conducting remote meetings, to suspend the rules of normal Public Meetings, should emergency conditions dictate.” Cereceda asked if a Special Meeting does occur after the Town Council Election on March 17, but before swearing-in the new Council on April 6, “should we include those members?” Herin replied that “you can informally invite them, to get a head start, but they cannot participate in any voting.”

Shamp asked if the Bay Oaks Recreational Center should suspend activities, especially those for Seniors, but Hosafros replied, “They already have, and will follow the lead of the Lee County School District for schoolchildren programs.” Shamp encouragingly stated, “People will get through this. Take care of yourself, wash your hands and we will all be fine!” “Be good to yourselves,” added Cereceda, “and if you need us for anything, call us!”

The meeting adjourned at 4:28 p.m. Following its conclusion, Hernstadt informed some Council members that he planned to assist the Lions Club by having the Town purchase $7,000 of shrimp from the Lions, who would then donate them to the Harry Chapin Food Bank. The Town Manager is authorized to approve spending of up to $25,000. The Lions Club was offered the opportunity to crown the Shrimp Festival Queen in Times Square on Sunday, but did not accept that offer, indicating to the Sand Paper that they hoped to reschedule.

Cereceda reminded everyone to “shop your local businesses and generously tip your service staff, now and in the next few weeks to come!”

SIDEBAR:

Support the Lions Club

For over 60 years, the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club has put on the Island’s beloved Shrimp Festival, raising thousands of dollars that they then use to support numerous causes for those in need. With the unprecedented cancellation of this year’s Shrimp Festival, the Lions  are in desperate need of financial support if they are to continue their service activities and charitable donations in the year ahead. Every dollar raised flows back into the community for those in need. Can you help support the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club and their charitable efforts?  Go to bit.ly/HelpLionsISP or visit their Fort Myers Beach Lions Club Shrimp Festival Facebook page to help. Be generous please!