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Fort Myers Beach Council keeps beaches open; imposes mask mandate

By Staff | Jul 1, 2020

Fort Myers Beach will be open this weekend without any beach access limits though there will be a new requirement on mask-wearing.

At a special meeting on Wednesday, the Fort Myers Beach Council voted 3-2 on an emergency declaration beginning at midnight to require that masks be carried by all individuals over the age of 6 when they are away from home and that they be worn in public in situations where individuals are unable to socially distance. Exceptions include while inside a hotel room or when sitting down and dining at restaurants, or when with members of family or residence. Fines of $50 could be levied against individual violators and fines of up to $500 for businesses deemed to be in violation.

Voting for the emergency declaration at the special meeting was Mayor Ray Murphy, Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros and Councilmember Bill Veach. Voting against the measure was Councilmember Dan Allers and Councilmember Jim Atterholt.

Other exceptions to the mask-mandate include those with health issues or disabilities who would be adversely affected by wearing masks. Kitchen-preparation areas and for those at barbershops or beauty salons receiving services would also be excluded from the requirement.

In discussing his opposition to the mask proposal by Veach, Allers said “it’s important to remember what this weekend is about. It’s about our freedom to make choices.”

Veach compared the mask-wearing mandate to laws instituted to ban smoking in public places while Allers said it should be up to businesses to make decisions about mask-wearing. Veach said it’s unfair to tell people to stay home because somebody is making it unsafe based on not wearing masks, in effect saying “you have to surrender these public areas to the careless.”

Atterholt cited his “libertarian instincts” in opposing the mask-wearing requirement. Atterholt said he supported wearing masks and encourages people to wear masks. He objected to the requirement that people going for a jog or walk on the beach would have to carry a face-covering.

“Except, we are not going to be patting people down,” Hosafros said.

Atterholt said it wasn’t clear.

Veach said the language should be changed so that people should have access to the face-covering so if somebody is going for a swim they would have access to a facemask near their towel.

Allers said the mask-wearing requirement “will pit neighbors against neighbors” and questioned how the mandate would be enforced.

Atterholt also questioned whether a business would be fined if an employee was talking to another employee on break without a mask.

The emergency declaration doesn’t have an expiration date.

The council does not have another meeting scheduled until August though it could choose to have another special meeting before then. The ordinance the town council approved was based on ordinances approved in Monroe County and the City of Sanibel.

Earlier, the council discussed potential restrictions to beach access for the Fourth of July weekend but a majority of the council members were against taking such measures.

The Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce opposed beach-closure measures, with Chamber President Jacki Liszak saying beach closures could lead to a high number of cancellations and would lead to people being gathered in more congested areas.

Liszak said the chamber supported the council strongly suggesting or requiring mask-wearing indoors.

At the meeting, Murphy pushed for stringent beach-access limits, saying Florida is now the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Murphy expressed concern about beach visitors arriving “from the hinterlands” after southern and eastern Florida counties acted to close their beaches including limited beach access in Collier County.

“We’re the lone holdout,” Murphy said. “We’re the only game in town.”

Murphy referenced rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Lee County. In the past week, COVID-19 positives have increased by 46% countywide and 45% on Fort Myers Beach.

“Are our arms wide open saying ‘come on let the good times roll?’ Is that where we are?”

Atterholt said he was most concerned about poverty and the negative impact on businesses that a beach closure would cause.

“The economic hardship that the folks are going through, not just in Lee County but throughout Florida, throughout this country is causing suicide, depression, mental health issues, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse. These folks are losing their employer-sponsored health insurance. They are going bare with no insurance.”

Atterholt said the “climate of fear that has been generated” is causing “serious health outcomes.” Atterholt said the council shouldn’t shut down the whole island. “There are a lot of questions.”

Atterholt said the town’s businesses, particularly its hotels, “have taken a responsible course of action in terms of taking the appropriate precautions.”

Murphy said he supported limiting the town’s beach access points to town residents. Murphy said he didn’t want to discourage those with reservations on the beach.

“It’s really not my intention to run those people off by closing the beach down completely,” he said. “But it is my intention to stop the hordes and hordes of other people that I envision coming across the alley and the trail over here.”

Ultimately, the council took no action to limit beach access.