Though beaches in Georgia and Jacksonville are open with certain limitations, and Nassau County plans to follow suit May 6, the Fernandina Beach City Commission has decided to wait for guidance from the state on when the city’s beach should reopen.
Commissioner Chip Ross, a doctor in the Emergency Department at Baptist Medical Center Nassau, reiterated during the commission’s April 21 meeting that he believes state officials have more data about the coronavirus available to them than local officials, and as a result have not yet reopened Fort Clinch State Park on the north end and Amelia Island State Park on the south.
Ross said he believes the city should take its cue from the state and not reopen beaches within city limits until Gov. Ron DeSantis opens those parks in conjunction with a recommendation from the Florida Department of Health.
Commissioners discussed their concern that people will crowd the beaches once they’re reopened, with some not heeding the restrictions and guidelines meant to reduce the probability of transmitting or receiving coronavirus.
“We know the governor of Georgia is opening health clubs, bowling alleys, movie theaters, nail salons, and we know what will take place,” Commissioner Mike Lednovich said. “You’re going to have people back into facilities and the likelihood is that the virus will spread. We are so close to Georgia, (and) we will have Georgians at our beaches. That is another dynamic we need to take into consideration.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman was concerned that people would not follow social distancing guidelines on the beach, which require people stay at least six feet apart.
“Everybody is showing emails and news clippings of how great everybody is behaving,” Chapman said. “I want to wait until the first 80- or 90-degree day, especially if it’s on a weekend, to see how much social distancing gets done. I think we have an obligation to make sure we are not increasing the opportunity to spread this thing.”
DeSantis has put together a task force to create a plan for reopening businesses and facilities across the state, but Vice Mayor Len Kreger appeared skeptical about the expertise of the panel.
“The ‘start-the-economy’ task force of Gov. DeSantis is going to come up with recommendations by the end of the week,” Kreger said. “Interestingly, there is no environmental or health people on that committee. It’s pretty much a few mayors and it’s an economic kind of thing. It will be interesting, what they come up with.”
Mayor Johnny Miller said the opening of the state parks is key to when Fernandina Beach will reopen its own beaches.
“I get the passion people have that want to go to the beach,” Miller said. “I see the examples of what has been done in other cities, but I maintain that now is not the time to consider reopening our beaches until we have more data and we see what the state decides to do. If Fort Clinch were to open and we didn’t, my concern would be that everyone would go to that area, and now we are condensing people in a small area.
“My opinion is that, if the state opens up, we almost have to open up. That’s the key for me. We follow state guidelines. Whether we think what they are doing in nearby municipalities is right or wrong, I don’t think we should base decisions on what another city nearby is doing.”
Also at the meeting, City Manager Dale Martin gave the commission a report on the city’s marina. Martin said the city has declined a grant from the Boating Infrastructure Grant Program – also known as BIG-P – to extend the docks in the marina’s northern basin. The grant would have been for $1.5 million but also required a $1.5 million match from the city, something Martin said the marina is not in a financial position to do.
Martin said some portions of the dock to be installed in the marina’s northern basin have been delivered and are currently being stored at the Port of Fernandina. He said requests for bids to install the docks should go out this week.
“The contractor, Brance Diversified, is standing by to begin demolition and installation of the pilings, and dock sections should begin in mid-year,” Martin said. “That will be followed by the fuel system and the building on the northern docks to support fueling and the electrical and fire suppression systems. Those will be built subsequent to the installation of the attenuator.”
Martin gave a short report about trying to get millions of dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offset the money the city spent on repairs to the marina following
Hurricane Matthew. He said that process is “still messed up.”
Martin said conversations are ongoing with Congressman John Rutherford and that FEMA said they based their preliminary review on a document FEMA can no longer find: “We (are) looking for a copy of that document, which the contractor says they no longer have. … We are continuing to move forward with that. We are plugging away. It’s still frustrating.”
The commission voted to continue providing funds to Fernandina Beach Main Street in the form of a $40,000 annual commitment for the next three years. Lednovich objected, saying that the city’s financial situation is uncertain, so the commitment should be considered on a year-by-year basis. Kreger said that he has received several emails supporting Main Street, and that downtown businesses will need the organization’s support more than ever due to the downturn of business. The commission approved the funding 4-1, with Lednovich casting the dissenting vote.
Lednovich also cast the dissenting vote on two ordinances meant to rectify conflicts between the city’s Future Land Use Map and its zoning map. He said he believes a property owner who emailed him regarding a conservation zoning that’s being changed to commercial should have the opportunity to speak at a public hearing, something that wasn’t afforded since the commission meeting was being held online.
Despite Lednovich’s objection, the ordinance was approved 4-1.
In other business, the City Commission:
• Agreed to allow the city’s building official to waive certain electrical service requirements in place of the city manager;
• Extended a contract with the Nassau Humane Society to provide animal control services in the city; and
• Provided $9,000 to Barnabas Center for medical services; $30,000 to Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare for mental health services, and $15,000 to Micah’s Place to support the organization’s mission to help those affected by domestic violence.