Collier governments to take on reopening parts of the county during public meetings next week
Collier County and other local governments, following in the footsteps of cities and counties across Florida, are beginning to contemplate how to safely roll back coronavirus restrictions.
Like other communities, Southwest Florida leaders are confronted with a vexing question: How to reopen beaches, government buildings and the local economy without inadvertently fostering the spread of the potentially deadly virus.
The balancing act is expected to meet its first test when Collier County commissioners gather Tuesday for a meeting to, among other things, discuss whether to allow residents back on county beaches and potentially create a committee to deal with restarting the economy.
A statewide version, called the Re-Open Florida Task Force, was created by Gov. Ron DeSantis and is expected to make recommendations to the governor that could help guide local governments.
More:NCH acquires high-tech equipment with the goal of testing everyone for coronavirus
Saunders: 'Appropriate' to open beaches
One of the biggest sticking points for the Collier commission could become whether to reopen county beaches, one of the main economic engines for the region and a treasured draw for many residents. Communities across the state have begun to open beaches again with some restrictions on hours and activities allowed.
The decision to close miles and miles of public beaches last month was among the most drastic steps Collier took to slow the virus outbreak.
As of midday Friday, the county reported 14 coronavirus-related deaths and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had climbed to 523, but so far local hospitals have not been overwhelmed like in other areas of the country.
Now, after more than a month of restrictions and closures, some commissioners say it's time to allow beachgoers back to shores while others are worried that doing so if beaches outside Collier remain closed could draw streams of out-of-town visitors.
"I think it would be appropriate to open up the beaches for certain recreational activities," provided that beachgoers are "strictly complying" with social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Commission Chairman Burt Saunders said.
While some other communities that have reopened beaches have limited hours and prohibited lounging on chairs and towels, Saunders said that as long as there's social distancing and no gatherings the hours are not as critical and someone lying on a towel shouldn't be a problem.
"The good news is that the people in Collier County have been very receptive to social distancing" and because of that there hasn't been as great of a spread of the virus, he said.
Saunders said he would expect people to behave the same on beaches if they were reopened, which he said could be as soon as next week if a majority of commissioners agrees.
Taylor worried about reopening beaches
But others on the board aren't so sure about opening up access to beaches.
Commissioner Penny Taylor said she is not prepared to vote to reopen beaches unless only Collier residents are allowed to use them or there is coordination with Lee County and counties on the state's east coast, including Miami-Dade, one of the hot spots.
"We're going to need to be very carefully coordinating regionally," she said.
Taylor, who was among the first on the board to raise concerns about Collier's beaches when those were still open, said that if busy private boat ramps in Goodland and Chokoloskee, among other places, are any indication, opening up beaches could draw many out-of-towners.
"Right now our private boat ramps are overrun with Miami-Dade license plates," she said.
The reason why visitors from the east coast come to Collier ramps closest to Miami-Dade is because "their marinas are closed on the east coast," Taylor said.
"Those people are shut down and they want to recreate," she said.
Like elsewhere, Miami-Dade officials have begun discussions on easing coronavirus-related restrictions. Although no timeline was offered by the county's mayor, the Miami Herald reported last week that boats "could begin using public ramps again, but with limits on crew size and anchoring."
In Collier, Sheriff's Office officials, too, have noticed a recent uptick of users at two boat ramps in Everglades City and Chokoloskee and have begun to station deputies there on the weekends to monitor the situation and remind people to keep their distance, along with spot checks on weekdays.
"People are doing a pretty good job of maintaining their distance...," Lt. Jake Walker, district commander for the area, said last week. "There's an increased traffic but it's all been managed pretty well."
More:Collier County leaders look to create committee to plan reopening of economy, beaches, parks
Depending on the day, he estimated 30% or more were coming from the east coast and the rest primarily from Collier. Walker said deputies were seeing a lot more locals head to the ramps, too.
Beaches would open on same day
A Beach Reopening Work Group, meanwhile, met virtually earlier this week and had a "productive discussion about safe and coordinated ways to responsibly reopen local beaches for the public," the county said in a news release.
The group includes staff leadership from Collier, Lee, Naples and Marco Island and is working together to develop and finalize plans to reopen local beaches, the release continued.
In his newsletter, Commissioner Andy Solis, whose North Naples district includes some of the county's most popular beaches, shed light on what such a regional plan for reopening could look like.
"The goal is for all public beaches to open on the same date, together with all associated beach parking facilities, restrooms, and showers," Solis wrote. "Decisions about reopening beach concession facilities will be made by each agency."
All traditional beach activities would be permitted, subject to "strict compliance" with CDC and state guidance, he added.
When to reopen would be "predicated on the local public health agency providing data showing either a stable or downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases" in Collier or Lee for the seven-day period immediately before the planned opening date and/or "showing the capacity for local hospital systems to treat all patients without crisis care," Solis wrote.
Naples to discuss reopenings next week
The Naples City Council is expected to hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the city’s response to COVID-19 and a regional plan to open parks and beaches, the council announced at a special meeting Friday.
A few councilors Friday suggested the city look at opening city beaches as soon as possible, but City Manager Charles Chapman asked the council to allow Collier governments to meet and decide on a regional approach to opening public facilities.
The Marco Island City Council is expected to meet Wednesday, the same day as Naples, Chapman said.
“I think it will be a much better effect and would reduce a lot of frustrations with the public who would naturally wonder, why can I do this in the county, but I can’t do this in Naples? Why can I do that in Marco, but I can’t do that in the county?” Chapman said. “We’re trying to get away from all of that confusion.”
More:Bonita Springs begins easing COVID-19 restrictions
Chapman said Friday that the meeting earlier this week among regional government agencies was a productive discussion.
“We had a lot of give and take. We argued over a lot of different nuances: bathrooms to be opened, bathrooms to be closed, boat ramps to be opened, boat ramps to be closed,” Chapman said. “All of those things were kicked around. I think we have a very solid draft plan to take back to our governing boards.”
Chapman told the City Council that public health agencies will play an important part in setting a date for the county to begin reopening areas like parks and beaches.
“None of us in here have a crystal ball,” he said. “We have to go off the best information we have.”
'Strict focus on social distancing'
The city of Marco Island announced a coronavirus special meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday.
It is important to discuss at the local level any effort to reopen the city, according to Jared Grifoni, City Council vice chairman.
“It is extremely important for the future of our island, where many members of our community are suffering, that people are not left in the dark and filled with uncertainty about what might happen next,” he wrote in an email.
People have taken “reasonable precautions and safety measures” like social distancing that need to continue to allow people to get back to work “without causing further unnecessary long-term damage,” according to Grifoni.
More:Mask madness: Colorful, creative homemade masks brighten Naples landscape
Grifoni called for “a strict focus on social distancing, continued education and monitoring, and increased testing availability” instead of “forced shutdowns of society including those not in an at-risk demographic.”
Collier, Naples and Marco Island should set the same opening date and guidelines for beaches, according to City Councilman Victor Rios.
Exercise is good for the physical and mental state of residents “so opening (the beach) to all is proper and fair,” according to Rios.
At least half of the island’s city councilors said they are looking forward to reopen businesses and city-owned beach access following a month of back-and-forth decisions.
On March 19, the city announced it would close its pedestrian beach access after the county announced its own beach closures.
Following a City Council's split vote on April 6 to reopen public beach access in Marco Island, residents flooded the city with hundreds of calls and emails demanding they remain closed.
Less than 48 hours after the vote, City Manager Mike McNees announced Marco Island would not be opening its beach access after consulting with Council Chairman Erik Brechnitz.
Economic committee could be created
Aside from discussing beaches, Collier leaders on Tuesday are also expected to talk about potentially creating a committee that would deal with how to bring back the local economy.
To have a "starting point," Saunders said he proposed that the committee should include representatives from public health, hospitals, the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, restaurants, bars, retail food distribution, agriculture, general retail, banking, real estate, construction and hotels.
Additionally, he said representatives from the cities of Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City should sit on the committee, as well as from the county commission.
More:Southwest Florida's economy taking a big blow from coronavirus, according to economic impact survey
Whether and how to create such a committee would be up to the majority of the commission, Saunders said, although he would like to see if filled "very, very quickly," which could mean as soon as Tuesday.
Taylor agreed that starting to plan to restart the economy was critical for the county and that a cross-section of industry leaders should be tapped to help.
"We've got some brilliant people here that can really help," she said.
However, Taylor emphasized that reopening needed to be a "data-driven decision," including looking at the number of cases and the state of testing, and would be a process.
"This isn't: Snap your fingers and we're back to normal," she said.
Health officials weigh in
Medical and public health experts agree that easing restrictions needs to be done carefully and deliberately.
"The exact time frame for reopening the beaches needs to be determined according to the guidance and data from our public health officials," said Dr. David Wilkinson, president of the Collier County Medical Society, in a statement. "When the beaches open, beachgoers should adhere to public safety measures."
The medical group also "strongly supports continued strict physical distancing and facial coverings for everyone who is out in public," he added.
More:Florida coronavirus cases top 30,000 and deaths top 1,000 Friday
If a broader reopening happens too fast or improperly, it could present problems for the healthcare system.
"With shortage of testing supplies we still don't know who needs to be quarantined, and physicians are still having trouble obtaining (personal protective equipment), so we might not be ready for a second surge if we reopen too quickly," Wilkinson wrote.
Dr. Jayanta Gupta, an epidemiologist and assistant professor and director of the public health program at Florida Gulf Coast University, stressed, too, that reopening needs to happen gradually.
"We need to keep a close watch on how things are going,” he said. "If there are any signs of a reversal, for example, if cases suddenly start to spike, we can take immediate measures."
Gupta said he feels beaches can be opened "to a limited number of people at a given time with the assumption that social distancing will be practiced." However, he added that other places, including reopening certain businesses, may take priority over beaches.
Manufacturing, for instance, could slowly be brought back with a limited number of workers returning, preferably in shifts, Gupta said. Similarly, restaurants may be able to reopen to dine-in customers by cutting down on seating capacity.
What has become evident, Gupta said, is that social distancing works. He was initially concerned about Southwest Florida, especially given its relatively large elderly population, but people generally have been following guidelines and orders.
Had they not done so, it would have spiraled out of control, he said.
"That's a proof that it has been effective," Gupta said.
Connect with the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @PatJRiley.