Marco City Council votes 4-3 to reopen some beach access amid coronavirus pandemic

Marco Island City Council voted 4-3 to reopen city-owned beach access points following a two-week closure to limit the number of beach goers during the coronavirus pandemic.

The pedestrian walkways by Marriott's Crystal Shores hotel and the Madeira condominium will open at dawn on April 13 and will close at dusk every day.

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Councilor Howard Reed said current rules which limit beach access cannot continue indefinitely.

"We cannot live the way we are living right now indefinitely," Reed said during a council meeting April 6. "At some point we are going to try to go back to a normal life."

"We don't know when that is."

With the current limitations in effect, including the closure of county and city-owned beach walkways and parking, the Marco Island Police Department estimated over 500 people on the beach from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, April 4, according to Chief Tracy L. Frazzano.

On Wednesday, April 1, police estimated 130 beach-goers at 3 p.m., she said.

"Six miles of beach could afford that many people and still keep a six feet distance," Reed said. "I see this as the transition from where we are today to where we are going to be when it's normal."

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Councilor Larry Honig said the report provided by the police department, which included estimates of the amount of people on the beach at any given time, was encouraging.

"The citizens of Marco Island have been remarkable in practicing social distancing," Honig said. "I think Marco Island has been handling this really well and that suggests to me that there is not really a need for change right now. 

"We do not have a problem with the beach."

Social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining distance, approximately six feet or two meters, from others when possible, according to CDC's website.

Jared Grifoni, council vice-chair, said it is OK to be outside during the pandemic.

"Being outside is not a crime," Grifoni said. "Being outside is a good thing as long as you are following the social distancing guidelines." 

"When you read the governor's order [...] the CDC, the Department of Health, they didn't shut down the beach for a reason."

Councilor Sam Young said Gov. Ron DeSantis' order to "stay at home" should be followed literally.

"I think we should take literally the stay at home order," Young said. "I think there should be no beach access for anybody."

"The order is to stay at home."

Young said the city could be prolonging the health emergency situation by keeping the beaches open.

"I think we (should) take a shot of medicine that may be [...] a bitter pill to swallow for a short term period and get through the peak of this, which is projected at April 21," he said. "Close them off; easy to enforce."

Currently in Marco Island, the beaches are open for people with private access to the beach like condo owners and hotel guests.

The Marco Island Civic Association, which owns a private beach access point on the island, decided to close it after speaking with City Manager Mike McNees.

McNees said he reached out to the association to ask them to close the parking lot of Residents' Beach but that it was MICA who decided to close the pedestrian access.

"Ultimately they decided to close the pedestrian access," he said during a council meeting on March 31.

After over two hours of discussion and listening to residents' concerns, City Council approved the motion with the opposition of councilors Charlette Roman, Honig and Young.  

The access point near Madeira, located at Maple Ave. and South Collier Blvd., will be for entry only, according to a city news release sent Tuesday. People will only be allowed to exit using the pedestrian walkway near Crystal Shores at Winterberry Dr. and South Collier Blvd.

"There will be no beach parking lots open and no parking on residential streets," as stated in the release. Social distancing guidelines will still be enforced, and the Marco Island Police Department will continue to monitor the beaches to ensure people are not congregating in groups."

More:Marco City Council votes to close Caxambas boat ramp but keeps beaches, hotels open

And:Marco police officers required to enforce Florida's 'safer at home' executive order

The county closed parking lots and beach access points at Tigertail Beach and South Beach. Following the county's lead, the city closed its public beach access by Madeira and Crystal Shores on March 19.

The Florida Department of Health confirmed Collier County's first three cases of the novel coronavirus on March 11.

Since, then the number has increased substantially, with the state Department of Health reporting 268 cases of COVID-19 in Collier County, according to Tuesday morning's report. 

Naples had 210 cases, Marco Island 6, Immokalee 4 and Ave Maria 2.

On March 31, City Council passed a motion requesting Collier County to close the Caxambas Park boat ramp amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The recommendation to close the park came from McNees after receiving reports of sizable gatherings in the area.

"We are aware it has become a popular spot for folks to come over from Miami-Dade and Broward to put their boats in the water," he said. "The county has agreed to limit that access at this facility already."

The county confirmed the closure in a news release sent later that day.

"At the request of the Marco Island City Council, Caxambas Park, 909 Collier Court, Marco Island, FL 34145, will be closed from April 1, 2020, through April 30, 2020," as stated in the release.

The park's fueling station is still open for boats on the water, according to the city.

DeSantis issued an order for Floridians to stay at home for 30 days and only leave for essential services. The order began April 3.

Under the "safer at home" order, DeSantis said people will be allowed to engage in "essential activities" but should stay at home otherwise.

Essential activities include religious services, walking, biking, hiking, fishing, hunting, running, swimming, caring for pets and caring for or assisting loved ones and friends, according to a police news release sent April 2. People can also still visit stores for essential needs and restaurants can still offer takeout. 

More:COVID-19 in Collier County: April 7 confirmed positive cases

Additional reporting by digital producer Dan DeLuca and social media strategist Jennifer Sangalang from the USA Today Network.

Omar Rodríguez Ortiz is a community reporter for Naples Daily News and Marco Eagle. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram as @Omar_fromPR, and on Facebook. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.