Marco Islanders’ reaction to beach access opening led to decision to keep it closed

Following City Council's vote to reopen public beach access in Marco Island, residents flooded the city with hundreds of calls and emails demanding they remain closed.

Erik Brechnitz, council chair, said 99% of emails he received after the April 6 vote were against reopening city-owned beach access.

"To give you an idea, I went to bed at 10 o'clock last night, had my inbox email cleared, and I woke up this morning and I had 142 emails," Brechnitz said April 8. "I've never seen anything like it."

He was one of four councilors who voted in favor of reopening the city's beach access points by Marriott's Crystal Shores hotel and the Madeira condominium. The others were Vice-chair Jared Grifoni, Victor Rios and Howard Reed.

Less than 48 hours after the vote, City Manager Mike McNees announced Marco Island would not be opening its beach access after consulting with Brechnitz.

The amount of calls and emails from residents decreased by April 10, according to McNees.

"Things seem to be calming down a little bit," he said. "It's an observation of my own inbox."

Erik Brechnitz, chairperson of the Marco Island City Council, speaks during a council meeting on March 2, 2020.

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The residents' anxiety levels were high as many contacted the city en masse, according to both Brechnitz and McNees.

"The idea of bringing people from other places who would come to Marco Island, bring the virus, put people at risk, raised people's anxiety levels," McNees said.

Brechnitz said the "anxiety from the citizens was overwhelming."

"It was clear that we were raising the anxiety level of most of our citizens and that's not what we are in business to do," he said. "We should be calming the waters, not churning them up, and making people develop anxiety."

Alan Gabriel, city attorney, said Brechnitz could have called an emergency council meeting to reconsider the decision to open the beach access but it would have been difficult.

"The chair could have called an [...] emergency meeting of council to reconsider but we had Passover [...] which puts some of us out of availability," Gabriel said.

The city  is obligated to give 24 hours notice prior to special-called meeting. 

"It would have been difficult so they chose not to call a special council meeting that would have been Friday or Saturday because they would have presumably want to take action prior to the enforcement of that matter on Monday."

In an April 8 press release, City Manager Mike McNees wrote that access points would remain closed. He made the decision in consultation with Brechnitz and under the authority of the state of emergency declared on March 16 and under Section 10-6 of the city’s civil emergency code.

It was shortly after that initial declaration that residents started expressing concern about the beach being open. At least one property owner wrote an email to McNees the next day.

"I’m curious why you have not followed Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and closed Marco beaches," the email read. "By not restricting activities, I think you’re endangering the local population."

"I also feel that you’re encouraging beach goers and traveling spring breakers to travel here from the east coast." 

Marco Island City Manager Mike McNees speaks during City Council meeting on March 16, 2020.

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On March 18, a resident wrote to City Council that the city had to shut down the beaches.

"Since the beaches on the east coast are closed, many more people are streaming to the west coast," she wrote. 

"These same people go into our grocery stores, our pharmacies, our gas stations, etc., highly increasing the probability of spreading the Coronavirus in this area." 

On March 19, the city announced it would close its pedestrian beach access. Collier County also closed beach access and parking lots in South Beach and Tigertail.

Marco Island Civic Association closed the Residents' Beach parking lot and pedestrian access March 20.

McNees said he had reached out to the association to ask them to close the parking lot but that it was them who decided to close the pedestrian access as well.

"Their first go around was no, they didn't want to do that and so in an effort to bring the crowds down [...], I pushed them to close their parking lot because they have the capacity to put a lot of people on the beach," he said. 

Emails provided by McNees show a heated exchange between him and Ruth McCann, executive director of MICA.

"I heard from a few people yesterday that they thought crowds at Residents Beach were excessive, one said the parking lot was 2/3 full," McNees wrote the morning of March 20. "I didn’t get [...] there myself, so I was interested in your take on the situation."

McNees continued.

"We’re limiting the numbers on the beach by closing parking and city owned access, and I am fighting to hold that position under a lot of pressure to “close the beaches” entirely, so that nearby residents can still walk the beach," he wrote. 

"So what it comes down to is this – are you wiling to close your parking lot, so that I don’t have to order all beaches on Marco Island to be closed?" 

McCann replied to McNees later that day telling him the association's board of directors voted to close Residents' Beach. In the email, McCann also made reference to a previous conversation she had with McNees.

"Perhaps you do not recall saying that you had videos of people congregating at Residents’ Beach and that you would release them on social media, but that is what you said," McCann wrote.

 McNees wrote to McCann it was a misunderstanding.

"Ruth – Clearly there was misunderstanding, because I didn’t see any video of any Marco Beach, and as such would never say that I had seen something that doesn’t even exist," he wrote. 

"Further in 1,000 years I wouldn’t threaten to use some video or any other information in any negative or extortive way even if I had (it)."  

McCann later apologized and McNees thanked her.

"My apologies for the misunderstanding," she wrote. "I honestly heard you say videos or pictures." 

McNees told the Eagle he was not aware of any photos or videos. "I have no idea where that idea came from," he said. 

On March 27, McNees emailed McCann, this time telling her he was "strongly considering" reopening the city's pedestrian access points to the beach. 

McNees emailed McCann a day later asking her if the association was considering to open Residents' Beach to pedestrians.

"Do you have any interest in opening your pedestrian access if we keep the public access closed, which would be still allowing those who have non-public legal access to the beach," he wrote.

McNees told the Eagle he was not trying to get the association to open its pedestrian access to take the pressure off from residents who wanted the city to reopen its own beach access.

"If I had said 'would you be willing to open yours to take the pressure out of the other demands' I would have said that," he said.

On March 29, McCann wrote an email to McNees telling him the association was not considering to reopen Residents' Beach.

"Because of the unknown nature surrounding COVID-19, a severe acute respiratory illness, and in compliance with all of the medical experts' advice, the MICA Board of Directors will not open any portion of Residents' Beach at this time," McCann wrote.

McCann urged the city "to close access to the entire Marco beach front, including to all visitors and residents of hotels, time-shares and condominiums on the beach."

"This would result in no one on the beach, making the job of law enforcement on the beach easier and allowing the Marco Island Police Department to address more important responsibilities," she wrote. "All beaches in Collier County are closed, except for Marco Island.

"Unfortunately, Marco Island is inviting trouble."

McCann also urged McNees "to do the right thing for the health and safety of the residents and citizens of our island."

"Please shut the entire Marco Island beachfront now," she wrote.

McCann did not respond to the Eagle's request for comment.

McNees said he hopes the city's relationship with the association has not been affected.

"MICA and the city are partners going forward in an awful lot of things," he said. "They are an intrical part of what's going on around here."

McNees said it is "completely unfair" that people are unhappy with the association over its decisions regarding beach access. "MICA is working with the city to control the crowds on the beach, doing what they think is right and they don't deserve any criticism," he said.

McNees told the Eagle "the only objective in opening any pedestrian beach access at any point was to give resident's of Marco Island the opportunity to walk on Marco's wide beaches."

"What became clear, is that the enticement for outsiders to come to the beach overwhelmed any reasonable objective in giving residents the chance to walk the beach," he said.

McNees said he thinks opening city-owned beach access won't happen until "we are out of this pandemic situation."

On March 31, McNees presented to City Council several options during a special-called meeting. Those options included shutting down the beaches completely or a time-limited closure.

In a 5-2 vote, City Council passed a motion directing city staff to calculate the amount of people going to the beach and the number of police interventions. 

The county closed Caxambas Pass Park boat ramp at the request of the city that same night after McNees said he received reports of sizable gatherings in the area. City Council voted in support of McNees' recommendation with the opposition of councilor Rios. 

Marco Island Police Chief Tracy L. Frazzano said at the meeting beach goers had been very compliant after speaking with police officers.

"When we go out on to the beach we make sure the social distancing is in effect," she said. "We have stopped people, talked to them, separated them."

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.

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

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

The city appreciates everybody's patience, according to McNees.

"I know people are anxious, they are scared, they are worried about what is going to happen next," he said. "We are working as hard as we can do do the right thing and try to keep the city in the best position we can." 

"People have been great, they continue to cooperate and I know [...] they will continue to do so."

More:Florida begins reopening beaches amid coronavirus crisis, and people are enthusiastically flocking

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave municipalities the go-ahead to reopen during a news conference Friday – if it can be done safely, while observing social distancing guidelines. A day earlier, President Donald Trump rolled out a three-phase approach for reopening the nation.

With the governor's green light, north Florida beaches were among the first to allow people to return since being closed down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Additional reporting by USA TODAY reporter Morgan Hines.

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.