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Fort Myers Beach Council to hold special meeting to discuss beach opening

By Staff | Apr 21, 2020

With three councilmembers signaling a willingness to open up the beach again, if only on a limited basis for the time being, a special meeting has been called for Monday to take up the matter.

The proposals have been opposed by Mayor Ray Murphy, who has urged the council to stay the course that it has taken in keeping its beach closed, along with much of beach business, over the past month as the coronavirus pandemic swept into Lee County.

Councilmember Rexann Hosafros has called for the town to allow residents back on the sand on a limited “test” basis. Hosafros’ proposal would open up the beach from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for those who want to walk on the beach, while not allowing lawn chairs or towels for reclining or sitting on the beach. Hosafros also wants the board to reconsider its actions to shut off beach access to residents who live on the beach, thus preventing them from accessing their backyards.

“I think if we allowed people to walk or run on the beach between 7 and 9 a.m., that might be a workable solution to allowing people what is allowed, which is exercise.”

Hosafros said her proposal for re-opening beach access would be limited to town residents, with social distancing rules of six-feet-of separation and groups of less than 10. Hosafros said she would not support any re-opening of the town parking lots at this point.

Hosafros said the goal of driving people out of town by closing off the beach has been accomplished.

Councilmember Jim Atterholt said opening up the beach is important to mental health to town residents. Exercise is essential and important to mental health, he said. “People are much more educated on the disease,” he said. “They are much more educated on protocols.”

On the south side of the island, Atterholt said that it has been a challenge to walk on the sidewalk in areas where there is limited room.

Councilmember Dan Allers also supported opening up the beach, though he would open up the beach without a time limit. “A lot of people wouldn’t be able to utilize it” if a time limit was placed, he said. Allers questioned how Hosafros’ proposal would be enforced.

Murphy strongly opposed the proposals. “I am firmly against it and it’s not because I don’t want the beaches open,” he said. “We’ve come too far at this point in keeping the virus down here on the beach to blow it in the last few weeks.”

Murphy said he’s “not willing to take the risk of anybody on the beach here getting sick or worse.”

Another point he raised is that when the beach opens, even if only for a couple hours, it could send the wrong message to the rest of the county that the beach was open on a wider basis.

As of April 20, Fort Myers Beach had been holding steady for more than a week with six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a county with 785 confirmed cases.

Murphy said Lee County commissioners are talking about opening up county beach parks soon, which could potentially lead to a limited re-opening of the beachfront on Fort Myers Beach at Lynn Hall Memorial Park and Crescent Beach Family Park. That would put the town in the tough position in closing off the beach in some areas when other parts of the county-owned property of Fort Myers Beach are open.

Councilmember Billy Veach said it was “premature to open up anything now when we are at the peak number of infectious people.”

Veach said “the world is being affected by this.” It’s a better message “if we are cautious,” and people feel their “health is being looked after,” he said.

Murphy and Councilmember Veach opposed scheduling the special meeting, arguing to push off discussion until the council’s next regular meeting May 4.

Hosafros had called for the special meeting, which led to a debate among the councilmembers. Atterholt turned out to be the moderating factor in the discussion, leading the board to agree in holding the special meeting which will take place April 27. The board will take up discussion on other aspects of the town’s emergency orders, including the ban on commercial lodging, which the previous council approved last month.