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Fort Myers Beach Council approves limited opening of beach

April 27, 2020
Nathan Mayberg ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The Fort Myers Beach Council, in a 3-2 vote Monday at a special meeting, approved a limited opening of the beach for town residents.

Town residents will be able to access the beach for walking, jogging and bicycling beginning Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Swimming or reclining on the beach will be prohibited.

Approving the re-opening was Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros, who introduced the measure, along with support from Councilmember Dan Allers and Councilmember Jim Atterholt.

Article Photos

Lynn Hall Memorial Park in March

Mayor Ray Murphy and Councilmember Billy Veach opposed the re-opening.

Those walking on the beach will be required to wear masks.

The council agreed to hold another special meeting Friday to discuss potentially opening up the beach further.

Groups of 10 or more people will not be allowed to congregate together.

Murphy said he has spoken to Lee Health CEO Larry Antonucci and Fort Myers Beach Fire Department Chief Matthew Love about opening up the beach, and said both have opposed the move. "The reality is once the beach is open, it's open. You know, people can talk about enforcement and this and that but I don't really believe that is going to happen," Murphy said.

"That's been my whole thing so far is the safety of our residents. That's who really I'm looking out for. There is a lot of competing interests with the businesses, the residents and the people who want to rent their places out. I understand that. I'm a businessman myself."

"We've come so far here at this juncture to risk other cases of the virus coming in here."

Murphy said there are now eight cases on Fort Myers Beach of the coronavirus, which he said is "an absolute credit" to residents on the beach. "I just don't want to see all of the hard work that has been done here go up in smoke."

Town attorney John Herin Jr. warned about the constitutional issues the town would run into trying to enforce a residents-only rule regarding the residency limit to those who can access the beach ban. "I frankly have a larger concern just simply about distinguishing between residents and non-residents. I don't know how it can be enforced," Herin said.

"Constitutionally saying well, we are going to allow beach residents versus no one else we may run into some issues there as to how we are distinguishing and legally distinguishing between residents and non-residents when there is no rational basis for doing so. Either the beaches are open or they are not. To say they are open to this class of individuals versus not these individuals may run into constitutional issues."

Hosafros said she considered the state constitution in her proposal to re-open the beach.

Atterholt, who pushed for opening the beach to swimming, said these are unique circumstances. From a practical perspective, Atterholt said he believed enforcement would only come into play if large crowds gathered together to violate social-distancing regulations. "I think there is a natural disincentive to keep people from coming here" due to the narrow window of time allowed for beach access, Atterholt said. "I'm not sure it's going to be a major crisis."

Atterholt said that when the town council approved the beach ban in March, spring break was still in effect and that has since passed. "I think we need to trust our people."

Murphy asked Town Manager Roger Hernstadt about how the re-opening would be enforced. Hernstadt said he believed the town's two code enforcement officers and four beach patrol officers should be able to handle the enforcement if there is good compliance though "possibly no."

Hernstadt said he expects to be able to close the beach by 10 a.m. He also believes people will continue complying if they know the town expects to re-open the beach with a wider timeframe.

"Unless somebody was acting irresponsibly, nobody would walk up to them and challenge their residency," Hernstadt said. "If someone is on the beach and complying with the order as it is crafted by the council and behaves in accordance with the order we probably wouldn't stop and challenge them to see if they are a resident or not."

Hernstadt said the town would be removing the barricades that have been set up at the beach access points. "We are not going to open them up and close them," he said.

Murphy asked Hernstadt about the effect on the town's budget for enforcement and how such enforcement would be conducted. Hernstadt said if beachgoers don't comply with instructions from beach patrol personnel, the Sheriff's Office would be called. He doesn't expect any overtime to accumulate.

Allers said that by not allowing parking or chairs, that will be easier to enforce than town residency.

Veach said there are a lot of private parking lots on the south side of the beach whereas a lot those who will hit the beach initially will be downtown. He urged that town parking continue to be restricted.

"I think this is a thoughtful compromise," Atterholt said. "This is a pro-public health position because your lessening the crowds on the Estero Beach sidewalks. You are requiring people to wear masks."

It is not clear if wearing masks while exercising is necessarily healthy for older people though.

Atterholt plans to discuss expanding beach access at Friday's meeting.

Murphy said that neighboring mayors have agreed that they want to re-open the beaches "together. We don't want one beach taking the brunt of the impact."

He said he didn't know how the Lee County commissioners would act at an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss opening its beaches. He said the county has been considering re-opening the county parking lots on Fort Myers Beach without any charges.

"Although it is very important for us to open up the beach for people to go out and recreate and get their exercise and so forth, I can't justify that in my mind as being as critical as the fact that we are endangering other people by doing this," Murphy said.

Murphy said that when the beach opens up, what is going to be heard "all around South Florida" is that Fort Myers Beach opens up.



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