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City council declares state of emergency

By Staff | Mar 23, 2020

At a recent special meeting, the Sanibel City Council adopted an emergency proclamation and a resolution declaring a state of local emergency as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

On March 18, the council voted unanimously 5-0 for approval.

According to the language, the state of local emergency applies to “all areas within the legal boundaries of the city” and “may be extended, modified or terminated by” the mayor or council. The action is “an emergency measure necessary for the protection of the public health, welfare and safety.” In addition, it allows the mayor “to cancel, postpone or reschedule any public meetings” currently set within 30 days.

Prior to council’s discussion and the vote, City Attorney John Agnew explained that the proclamation and resolution are in line with recent declarations by the president, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lee County and others. The maximum available initial term is for seven days, with the option to extend and modify it.

He added that approval of the declaration will make decisions more streamlined and provide the city operational flexibility. It also provides for access to any opportunities for state or federal funding.

“Which tends to open up more so when there’s a state of emergency,” Agnew said.

With social distancing being promoted as a major factor in helping to contain the spread of the coronavirus, only a handful of people were present to speak during public comment. Commissioner Jerry Muench reported that the Sanibel Fire and Rescue District has a similar resolution drafted.

He noted that the commission had not activated it as of the council’s meeting.

“But we will at a moment’s notice,” Muench said. “We’re ready to go.”

One resident referred to Sanibel being a small island as “both a curse and a blessing.” He urged the council to close the Causeway as a way to control the possible influx of the virus to the island.

“Every vehicle that comes across the Causeway is a statistical possibility of introducing the virus,” he said. “That’s why travel restrictions are put into place.”

He also suggested that the city put on-island measures into action, like cleaning the public bathrooms multiple times a day and sterilizing or turning off the drinking fountains along the shared use path.

“We have to be careful,” he said. “If the virus does get onto the island, we’re such a small compact community, it’s going to really spread.”

As a way to encourage social distancing, the city allowed the public to submit their comments electronically prior to the meeting, which Agnew read into the record. He shared with the council over two dozen comments, most voicing support for or opposition to closing the Sanibel Causeway.

“We should take preventive measures, even if it feels like overreaching,” Nessa Adelson wrote, adding that only those with hurricane passes should be allow on the islands – a sentiment shared by others.

Those opposed to such action voiced concerns about the impact to island businesses.

“It is being blown out of proportion. I urge you to please not buy into the hype,” one person wrote, pointing to a reduction in business revenue and taxes. “Keep the island open and functioning.”

As part of the meeting, the council asked City Manager Judie Zimomra for an update.

She reported that the city has been receiving cancelations for special events and that the Center 4 Life/Senior Center has been closed to the public except for the March 17 election. The Community Housing and Resources offices – also located at the senior center – have been closed to the public.

Zimomra continued that the city is reviewing which employees can work from home and that police dispatchers are using a list of screening questions on callers before contact is made. The new protocols stemmed from a call in which there was the potential for two officers to make contact with the virus.

“The preliminary tests came back negative,” she said, adding that the two cruisers of the responding officers are out of commission and will not be used until the final full tests come back negative.

During council discussion, Mayor Kevin Ruane reported that he has been participating in daily telephone calls with other mayors, Lee County officials and state representatives. He explained that the city does not own the Sanibel Causeway, that its operation falls within the power of the county.

“We don’t have the power to close it down,” he said.

Ruane acknowledged the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus.

“Our community is as divided on this as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “If we start to do any actions, we need to understand what the repercussions are we need to understand the gravity of this situation.”

Ruane added that restaurants are governed by the state and federal health agencies.

“On that particular issue we have limitations,” he said in reference to virus-related mandates.

Ruane voiced support for allowing the farmers market to continue to run.

“I’m hesitant to stop it because of issues with the grocery supply chain,” he said, adding that the market organizers have eliminated all the non-essential booths and have spaced out the remaining vendors.

Ruane noted that the city’s charter had never considered times like these.

“We’re trying to make the best decisions based on what other communities are doing across the state,” he said.

Councilmember Holly Smith reiterated that it is not the city closing events, it is the event organizers. She directed the public to the city’s Website for updated information, as well as Lee Health’s site.

“This is hitting everyone. We’re all being faced with this,” Smith said, noting that the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should remain home as directed. “We can’t isolate everyone.”

She added that restaurants should consider takeout and stores should limit their patron occupancy.

“We’re trying to do what we can to help people through this,” Smith said.

Councilmember Richard Johnson explained that there are two main things to consider: what the city can do because there are things it cannot do, and what the city should do in the best interest of all.

Vice Mayor Mick Denham urged the public to sign up for city alerts at mysanibel.com.

“It’s where you can get constant and up-to-date advice,” he said.

“And let’s all be kind to each other,” Denham added. “We’re all frustrated.”

Councilmember Jason Maughan echoed that, plus suggested weekly council meetings for updates.

The council agreed to weekly meetings, with the next one set for 9 a.m. March 25.

Also at the meeting, Ruane asked the council for latitude in working with Zimomra and staffers on the city’s expenses. He cited uncertainly for how quickly state and federal reimbursements might come.

“I’m concerned about city funds,” Ruane said. “I just want to reserve cash. I’m not trying to hoard it it might be awhile before we get reimbursements.”

The council voted in favor of the request.

Two days after the meeting, DeSantis announced an executive order to suspend any Florida statute that requires a quorum to be present in person or requires a local government body to meet at a specific public place. It also allows local government bodies to utilize communications media technology, such as telephonic and video conferencing.