by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
Sanibel City Council held a special meeting the afternoon of Monday, April 27, and voted to continue the meeting to 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, when council will decide how to proceed with COVID-19 restrictions. Monday’s meeting was called by a request from Councilwoman Holly Smith.
Smith said her main concern was the upcoming April 30 deadline for the prohibition on rental accommodations on the island. Since council has not met for two weeks and members can not talk to each other outside of meetings, she wanted to gain a little insight on the possible next steps. She also wanted to make sure council would implement what’s best for Sanibel.
“I’ve been listening to the public comments and if we are going to reopen, it needs to be in a very measured way,” said Smith. “I’ve been asking myself what’s the benefit to reintroducing the rental community before we allow our own residents, including around the county, to be able to participate in the reopening.”
City Attorney John Agnew read nearly 100 public comments sent by email, which were about 9-1 in favor of continuing restrictions on dining, accommodations, parking, etc. Sanibel has eight cases of the virus, according a report released Tuesday, April 28, by the Florida Department of Health. And on Tuesday Mayor Kevin Ruane extended the State of Emergency declaration to May 5.
Smith also said on Monday the accommodation industry on the island should have some direction prior to the Thursday deadline. “If we don’t have a plan, we are planning to fail,” she said. “I think it’s important that before April 30 the accommodations know what we think would be best and we could make that decision on a limited degree right now.”
Smith, who owns rental accommodations in Fort Myers, has continually advocated for accommodations, which she said are one of the highest risk factors for contact. “Sanibel, by definition, is a tourist destination and I’m concerned,” she said.
Ruane said he didn’t see a policy decision that was necessary to call meeting in the past two weeks, but was “glad” Smith requested Monday’s meeting. He has been speaking with mayors from around the state, county commissioners and the governor’s office on a daily basis. He said the governor would be reopening Florida and issuing new guidelines soon.
The mayor also expressed a great deal of concern over the city’s finances during COVID-19 restrictions and public health when it comes to reopening the island for business. “One does not trump the other, they go hand-in-hand,” he said.
The city’s budget will be short by about $500,000 with a two-year plan of cutting down to bare expenses. Although the city expects to receive $1.75 million from the Tourism & Development Council, it could be a battle for the money because bed tax is not being collected. Ruane said it would be a more compelling argument for the TDC funds if the city was reopened alongside the county and contributing its portion of bed tax.
“The devastation is mind-boggling and continues to become mind-boggling,” Ruane said. “The challenges we are going to have are enormous.”
Vice Mayor Mick Denham took the position of waiting 48 hours before making any decisions on loosening restrictions to learn what the Board of County Commissioners and the governor will decide. “If, of course, we don’t agree with the decisions of the BOCC or the governor or it’s not in the best interest of Sanibel, then we can make an appropriate decision for our citizens,” he said.
Denham, who remembers when the city had a strained relationship with the county about 15 years ago, added that he was concerned about keeping the now strong relationship with them. “I am very anxious that we don’t do anything that would cause the BOCC to have some anguish about us and the way we behave.”
He made the motion to continue the meeting and council members committed to making a decision at the meeting on Wednesday.