A Veterans Day parade, Christmas parade, lighting of the community Christmas tree and New Year’s Eve Shrimp Drop on the Amelia River waterfront are traditions in the city of Fernandina Beach, but will those events take place during a pandemic? That question was discussed at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. Opinions were both for and against going forward with the events, but a final decision was postponed until Nov. 4.
The organizers of the events previously applied to the city for permits, which were approved, and those events are legal now that the state of Florida is fully open with no restrictions on the number of people who could attend. However, some city commissioners expressed reservations about allowing large numbers of people to gather with no way to enforce social distancing or the wearing of facemasks.
Commissioner Chip Ross, an emergency room physician, said that since beaches, restaurants, bars, hotels, and beach rentals are open, allowing those gatherings would not significantly increase the risk.
“My opinion is that we should plan that these events should be allowed, but the planners should implement social distancing and wearing masks when people are close together and with the proviso that, if the situation changes, we would have the ability to stop these events, up to the night before,” Ross said. “I don’t see that these events, with all else that is going on, are going to significantly increase COVID transmission.”
Both Commissioner Mike Lednovich and Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed that the events should move forward, if Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are enforced, but Commissioner Phil Chapman noted that “you can lead a horse to a mask but you can’t make it wear it.”
“It’s nice to sit here and say ‘wear masks’ but all you have to do is get in a group of people and you see there are a fair amount of people who don’t do that,” Chapman said. “To allow things that will increase the odds of people catching this virus I think is irresponsible. Looking at past Shrimp Drops, you could not social distance. You could not at parades if you want to see the parade. I think if there are events set up that you can social distance … but to pack people in for Shrimp Drop and the Christmas parade, I don’t want us to be responsible for giving someone a Christmas present of coronavirus.”
Enforcement of the city’s ordinance requiring masks to be worn inside public spaces has been an issue discussed by the commission since the ordinance was passed. At Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Dale Martin noted that not only has the ordinance been ignored – even at events where City Commissioners were present – but so has the requirement to obtain a permit for an event in the city, such as a march held last weekend, which took place without a permit. Martin said following guidelines comes down to “personal responsibility” and taking responsibility cannot be enforced.
“There’s no practical way, from an enforcement perspective, that we are going to have 40 cops telling people ‘you’re too close,’” Martin told the commission. “Do you expect me to have the police bring down the paddy wagon and start rounding people up?”
Martin said he has received emails from city residents asking that the events not take place. He said unpermitted events “are going to happen” and asked the commission for some guidance in moving forward with special events.
“What if you say you don’t want the Veterans Day parade and the veterans gather at Central Park and start walking down the street? I’m just looking for a message to send to the community that we are aware of the pandemic and we are doing our best to address it with events that are going to happen, whether they are permitted or not,” Martin said. “You as representatives of the community have to decide … are these officially sanctioned events, and does the city want to sanction these events? … We had emails saying don’t do these events and I think we need some direction to tell the community yes, we are going to allow these events or no, we’re not and put that to bed right now.”
He said he issued the Veterans Day parade permit with the condition that the city could revoke it if pandemic conditions change.
Gil Langley, who heads both the Amelia Tourist Development Council and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said those organizations have to have clearance before the city issues them permits for events such as Dickens on Centre and suggested the city require event organizers provide the city with a plan that would assure that CDC guidelines are followed. He volunteered to work with the city to create plans to enforce those guidelines.
“You might want to gate the waterfront and check for temperature (for Shrimp Drop). You can issue reservations for the fireworks with a limited number of tickets,” Langley said. “If you decide to move forward, we would be happy to consult with the special events committee and city manager and city attorney and try to work out ways to ask people to do the right thing. If you ask people to do the right thing, they are pretty good.”
City Attorney Tammi Bach told the Commission the best course of action would be to bring the matter back at the Nov. 4 meeting.