Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 22, 2020
During their October 20, 2020 Regular Meeting, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) devoted considerable time to discussing the future of special events in the City in the era of Covid. Prompting this discussion were the upcoming holidays and events that the community eagerly anticipates: the Veterans Day parade, Christmas Tree lighting and parade, and the New Year’s Eve Shrimp Drop. Commissioners understood both the perils and the benefits of allowing such events to proceed, but highlighted the responsibility of individuals to conduct themselves in such a way that promotes their own safety and that of those around them.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich presented a graph that showed that local Covid cases are not decreasing. He said the daily average of cases is considered high with a positive test rate of 11.2 percent. He said that the statistics show, “We are at risk of an outbreak.” He went on to site conflicting information from other official sources and asked Commissioner Chip Ross, a medical doctor, to clarify.
Ross provided his thoughts. “This disease is rapidly changing and continues to change,” he said. “One of the things that I think is pretty solidly convincing is that you need social distancing and to stay at least 6 feet apart from others. You need to wear a mask, and you need to wash your hands.”
Ross explained that in trying to decide what to do about upcoming special events he reviewed CDC and state guidelines and what other countries are doing. He also talked with County health and emergency service managers as well as Gil Langley, who represents the local tourism industry. “The final answer,” Ross posited, “is there is no answer. There is no right answer. What the answer is today will probably be somewhat different tomorrow, depending on the [progress of the pandemic].
“But I do know,” Ross quickly added, “that the beaches are open, streets downtown are full of people, restaurants and bars are completely open. I know there are no restrictions on sports gatherings in Nassau County. Currently there is no mask ordinance in the rest of the County. The City has an indoor mask ordinance but it’s not enforceable because the Governor has said we can’t enforce it basically. The Governor has basically opened the state, and hotels and motels are open for business.
“So in looking at the total picture, these events probably don’t significantly increase the risk [of contracting the virus]. So my opinion is that these events should be allowed but that the planners should implement [CDC guidelines] with the proviso that if the situation worsens we would have the right to stop these events, even up to the night before.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed with Ross’ assessment that the special events in question do not significantly increase the risk of infection. He cited consistency in numbers of reported infections, adding, “We’ve made it through school opening, Labor Day.” He said that the special events are all outside events, and that the City should continue its mask ordinance and emphasizing the CDC guidelines.
Lednovich agreed with Ross and Kreger. He acknowledged that he had participated in the unauthorized Women’s Parade the previous weekend. “I cannot be a hypocrite and say ‘I did that, but don’t do this,’” he said. “However, my primary concerns are the tree lighting and the shrimp drop, where we have a limited space in which people are going to pack in. I’m not saying don’t do it. But what I am saying is if you are at risk, don’t attend these events.”
“We are now in a time when we are in charge of our own health,” Lednovich continued. “I think it’s incumbent upon the City to make these points prior to events: even if you are outside, wear a mask, social distance, and wash your hands. If the City could reinforce that message prior to having these events, I’d feel much better about going forward with the events.”
Ross added that he believed that the Tourist Development Committee (TDC) can help the city with that message and to find ways to provide for more social distancing at the events. Ross said, “I don’t think this virus is going away any time soon. It wouldn’t surprise me if we were to be having this same conversation a year from now. Hopefully not.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman said that his issue related to what is going on in the country, with states that had opened up now considering whether to close again because of increased Covid cases. He said that despite pleas to wear masks, “there is a fair number of people who don’t do that. Fernandina is a lovely place but we are not immune. To allow events that increase the odds of people catching this virus I think is irresponsible. People talk about getting back to normal. Wake up, people! There is no normal any more. People need to accept that hard, cold fact.”
Chapman cited past Shrimp Drops where “people were jammed together and you could not social distance.”
“To pack folks in for the Christmas parade, for the Shrimp Drop — I don’t want [the City] to be responsible for giving people Coronavirus for Christmas,” Chapman said.
Lednovich shared Chapman’s concerns and asked if there would be a way to limit the number of people who could attend any of the events in question. He cited New York City’s example of drawing circles 6 feet apart in Central Park to require social distancing.
City Manager Dale Martin said, “There are groups that don’t follow the process. What do you expect me to instruct the Police to do if there is an unauthorized event? Do you want me to send in the Police with a paddy wagon to arrest everyone? I am looking for a clear message from you to send to the community. We are getting emails from people asking us not to hold the events.
“There is no practical way from an enforcement standard that we’re going to have 40 cops telling people ‘You’re too close together.’ It’s a matter of personal responsibility, and that’s what we’re going to have to rely on, unless you really want to have dozens of Cops trying to separate people. You Commissioners, as representatives of the people, need to decide whether to sanction these events. Please don’t expect me to have a discussion with Chief Hurley on whether to arrest or fine people participating in an active event. It’s just not going to happen.”
Convention Visitors Bureau (CVB) President Gil Langley addressed the FBCC and recapped the assistance that his organization has provided to businesses during the pandemic. He also cited the events that had to be cancelled or converted to virtual events. “We have some ideas on what might work for these events,” he said. “We would suggest to you that if any event is to be considered, they present their plan for addressing social separation.”
Langley credited measures adopted by both the City and County Commissions with reassuring potential visitors that Amelia Island is a safe place to visit. He predicted that financial impact data from tourism for 2020 will be 30-40 percent lower than 2019, and that 2021 cannot reasonably be predicted today. He expressed a willingness to work with the City to come up with ways to ensure social distancing. “My experience is that when we tell people what they must do, they generally follow up,” Langley said. He suggested actions such as gating areas where people gather for the Shrimp Drop and Tree Lighting, temperature checking, limiting attendance and/or requiring reservations. “If you decide to go forward with these events,” Langley said, “we offer to help you do so.”
City Attorney Tammi Bach said that there will be a resolution placed on the November 4 FBCC Regular Meeting agenda so that Commissioners may vote to continue or cancel special events through the end of 2020.