by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
The Sanibel City Council met in a special meeting Wednesday, March 18, and declared a local state of emergency as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s effective for seven days and can be extended, modified or terminated.
The declaration provides Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane the ability to make certain decisions that would normally require a vote by the city council. It’s purpose is two-fold: giving operational flexibility without convening multiple council meetings in a fluid situation and grants access to state and federal funding, explained City Attorney John Agnew.
Agnew also read numerous emailed public comments into the record and they ranged from a call to close the island and beaches to tourists or limiting access to those with hurricane passes or testing people before crossing the Sanibel Causeway to some who believe the seriousness of the virus has been hyped.
“Our community is as divided on this as I have ever seen,” said Ruane. “If we start to do any actions, we need to understand what the repercussions are from a health point of view and an economic point of view, as well as the staff and resources we have available to us.”
He cautioned what the city has the ability to do and that residents are mistaken on the ability of what the city can do.
Ruane explained that the city doesn’t own the causeway and people need to understand there are a lot of severe limitations. He also said the number of vehicles crossing the bridge is off by 40 percent. March is historically the causeway’s heaviest month year over year with more than 350,000 vehicles using the bridge.
“This is different than any other emergency that we’ve had,” said Ruane. “We’ve never been prepared for this and people have written to say leadership is doing a great job and not doing a great job. I don’t know that we, as a country, can ever be prepared for a situation as wide spread as this.”
City Manager Judie Zimomra gave an overview of what the city has done and is doing as a precaution to limit the spread of the virus, which is highly contagious and a potentially deadly respiratory illness with senior adults at the highest risk of infection.
She said cancellation of special events on the island began very early compared to other cities. “I think much driven by the demographics and age of our community.”
The city’s declaration came on the heels of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordering the closure of bars, pubs and nightclubs for 30 days; public beach gatherings be limited to 10 people and spaced at least six feet from other groups; and restaurants to limit occupancy to 50 percent capacity, space tables six feet apart and limit groups to no more than 10.
“(The Governor) made some very dramatic steps and I suspect they will continue to evolve as this evolves,” said Mayor Ruane.
In other public comments during the meeting, Sanibel resident Doctor Stephen Brown gave the council a report as of March 17 from Lee Health where he is chairman of the board.
He said the hospital had two patients diagnosed with the virus and 147 specimens had been collected. Sixty hospital employees were quarantined and 32 patients tested. There have been 12 negative results with 21 pending. The hospital is limiting visitors to patients, which he foresees being stopped completely very soon.
He encouraged social distance and hand washing or the use of hand sanitizer when washing is not available. “This is a serious, serious crisis that could go on for two months,” he said. “We need to keep a close eye on this.”
Additionally, Sanibel Fire & Rescue District Board Chairman Jerry Muench told council that they have a similar declaration prepared, but it has not been activated. “We can (activate it) at a moment’s notice and are ready to go,” he said.