City wants experts to help craft a coronavirus plan

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  • Fernandiina Beach City Commissioner Dr. Chip Ross
    Fernandiina Beach City Commissioner Dr. Chip Ross
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The Fernandina Beach City Commission wants some experts to help them figure out what additional steps can be taken to counter the increasing number of positive coronavirus tests in the county. The commission approved an emergency order July 2 making wearing some sort of facemask or covering in indoor public spaces mandatory for people six years of age and up “when not able to engage in social distancing.”

A disease called COVID-19 is caused by infection with SARS-CoV-2, also known as the novel coronavirus. The virus is highly contagious and some carriers have no symptoms at all.

At their June 7 meeting, Vice Mayor Len Kreger said the city needs to have a plan in place based on data and metrics that will allow city leaders to know when to take actions like re-closing some businesses that reopened after Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed them to do so.

“I’m not a big fan of waiting for the state or the county to do anything,” Kreger said. “What kind of criteria do we need before we take further action? When do the numbers tell us we need to do something further? When do we consider further action, curtailing operations? Gyms are open, restaurants are at 50% – do we want to look at that?

“The beaches are another concern. I don’t think, personally, (on) most of our beaches people are socially distancing. We could do something there. I’m not saying what or when, but we need to look at that.”

Mayor Johnny Miller said he believes county officials and the Florida Department of Health should be involved in any city workshop to create a plan based on data showing increasing numbers of COVID-19 virus cases.

City Attorney Tammi Bach cautioned the commissioners not to look for guidance from health experts because dealing with the coronavirus has become so political, but also said they have the power to pass ordinances to close certain types of businesses or impose curfews without approval from the county or the state.

“If you have an expert in here … they are not going to tell you what they think,” she said. “They are letting officials make decisions. They are publishing statistics, but they are not going to tell you what to do. We’ve tried. You’re not going to get the experts to say, ‘For Fernandina Beach, this number means you need to shut restaurants.’ They’re not going to put themselves in that kind of political hot seat. They are going to want to know what to expect when they get here. I would suggest you have questions about the statistics, questions about protecting ourselves, but you all ultimately have to make that decision.”

Commissioner Phil Chapman said enforcement would be an integral part of any plan the city develops. Commissioner Mike Lednovich suggested having code enforcement in restaurants in the evening hours because he has seen violations of the ordinance passed by the City Commission last week.

Commissioner Chip Ross expressed doubts about the workshop and said enforcement won’t stop people from going to crowded places or make them wear masks, adding that its a personal responsibility.

“The reason I’m a little skeptical about having a workshop is that somehow you have got to get people to buy into the fact that they shouldn’t go to crowded places,” Ross said. “People have to stay six feet apart. We have to get word out that we can’t do the things we want to do as a group of people. You want to get people together, you want to shake hands, you want to hug.

“You want to enforce this, but it has to be a voluntary thing. Everybody thinks this pandemic is going to go away magically – it will not. We can flatten the curve, but it has to be the public working together. … I don’t think we have enough police and code enforcement officers to do that.”

The commission agreed to hold a workshop on July 15 at 2 p.m. at the city golf course.

Gil Langley, managing director of the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council told the City Commission the TDC gave $50,000 to local nonprofits to help hospitality employees affected by the downturn in tourism and is working with hotels to track visitors to the island and send that data to the Florida Department of Health.

A website has been created to have one place people can get information about the coronavirus in the city and county and another website where local businesses can have an online presence, free of charge, and offer goods and services, Langley said, adding that the TDC supplied facemasks and supplies to help businesses make customers aware of social distancing.

Call the TDC at (904) 277-4369 for more information about the websites Langley was referring to.

Langley said the TDC has canceled all of its advertising, although some of the ads that have already been scheduled are continuing to run on television and in print. 

“We’re taking the approach that tourism is going to suffer greatly the remainder of this fiscal year,” Langley said. “We’re not running any advertising for the next four months. We’re not doing any promotion. We’re answering questions for the media and trying to do what we can to help businesses, especially in the downtown area, that are dependent on tourism. We will lose some businesses. Fourth of July is usually a 100% occupancy weekend for hotels on the island. They ran about 60%.”

Langley said the Republican National Convention has signed contracts with all the hotels on Amelia Island, and it is the TDC’s responsibility to ensure those guests have a positive experience “without adversely affecting the citizens who live here.”

Langley said there is a plethora of issues affecting Florida tourism.

“Here’s the situation: We’ve got beaches that are under a cloud. ‘Open or closed – we don’t know why’ is what the consumer tells us. Hurricanes at the height of the season, the economy is cratering, we’ve got COVID, and today we found out that Florida now has brain-eating amoebas, which made national publications,” Langley said, referring to one case of Naegleria fowleri in Hillsborough County. It is usually found in warm, freshwater sources in Florida.

“We are at a war, but we are taking the proper steps to address the issues facing the city and the county,” he added.

The commission awarded a bid of $126,435 to Golf Sculptors International to perform work on the municipal golf course, but there were concerns regarding the bid process as well as spending the money when the city’s finances are uncertain due to the pandemic.

The work is being done, in part, to prepare the course for the installation of Toptracer, an electronic golf game the city agreed to install in order to raise revenue and help pay off debt. The city has budgeted $400,000 for the game.

Kreger said the company that won the bid was not the lowest bidder but rather the one that could get the work done quickly. He said there were no time constraints in the Request for Bids, which resulted in the city choosing a bid $30,000 higher than it should have.

“My question is, was (a time requirement) in the bid specs? When we go out and get four bidders and don’t take the lowest bid, and it’s $30,000 higher, that’s concerning,” he said. “If this bid was structured properly, all the scheduling data would be in there.

“We are sending a terrible message to bidders. The other two low bidders are going to wonder what’s going on here. We have to do a better job. Competitive bidding should be competitive bidding. We should specify what we want. … We shouldn’t have to spend $30,000 more.”

Lednovich said the city is in a hurry to have the golf course ready for the parts of the Republican National Convention scheduled to take place at the end of August in Jacksonville. He said Fernandina Beach should not make those improvements simply to attract more tourists during a pandemic and should make the improvements next year.

“When we (agreed to install Toptracer), it was during normal times with the expectation that we would have a full tourist season,” Lednovich said. “Does anybody think this is a time to open a new business that is dependent upon (the sale of) food and drink? We can wait until our economy rebounds. We don’t need this.”

The bid was awarded by a 4-1 vote with Kreger voting to approve the contract despite his objection. Lednovich cast the dissenting vote.

In other business, the City Commission:

• Approved a transfer of $23,100 from the General Fund contingency account to the information technology communications internet account in order to purchase more bandwidth needed for security cameras;

• Amended the time frame for the Charter Review Committee to extend to Sept. 30;

• Approved the final plat for Crane Island Phase 2B;

• Approved the transfer of $20,250 from the building reserve account to the building operating supplies account, approved the transfer of $10,000 from the building reserve account to the building overtime account, and approved the transfer of $24,986 from the building reserve account to various building accounts for expenses related to additional personnel;

• Approved a list of vendors to perform building plan reviews and inspection services when that department is understaffed due to vacations, sickness, training, etc;

• Amended the city code, prohibiting animals to be transported without being safely restrained;

• Appointed Amy Bryan to the Charter Review Committee to replace Richard Clark, who resigned due to relocation;

• Recognized “Foar from Home” for the group’s work to raise awareness and combat the high rate of veteran suicide and their work for veteran post-traumatic stress disorder medical research;

• Recognized the Cross the Line Foundation’s second Annual Paddle for Veterans event and gave the group a decal with the city of Fernandina Beach seal for use on their kayak; and

• Proclaimed July 25-Aug. 1 as Gullah/Geechee Nation Appreciation Week. 

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com