Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 6, 2020
As expected, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) once again unanimously agreed to extend the City’s emergency order requiring masks or face coverings in public spaces until December 6, 2020 (Resolution 2020-168). This action marked the second extension to the original order which was issued on July 21, 2020.
The key elements of this action include:
(1) Every person over the age of six (6) who is in a public indoor space must wear a face mask or covering.
(2) Every operator, employee, customer or patron of a business establishment must wear a face mask or covering at all times while indoors at that business establishment unless wearing a face mask or covering significantly interferes with the provision or receipt of goods or services offered or received at that establishment (i.e. patrons at a restaurant, patrons at fitness centers and yoga studios, clients at a barber shop or hair salon, patients at a dentist’s office).
(3) Public safety, fire, law enforcement, and other life safety personnel are exempted from this requirement, as their personal protective equipment requirements will be governed by their respective agencies.
(4) Due to the continuing public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus, the City Commission hereby extends the local state of emergency declared via Resolution 2020-48 to December 6, 2020, pursuant to Section 252.38, Florida Statutes.
(5) The City Commission authorizes the City Manager to extend the local state of emergency in 7-day increments as necessary for up to 30 days, and such authority shall expire on December 6, 2020.
Once again, Commissioners expressed concerns over the increase in the number of Covid cases both locally and nationwide. They discussed possible measures to make retail patrons more aware of the City’s mask mandate, but did not institute any new measures or procedures.
City Attorney Tammi Bach reminded the Commissioners that per order from the Governor, neither fines nor jail sentences can be imposed on violators of local mask ordinances.
The FBCC also continued its discussion from the previous meeting on the feasibility of moving forward with city-sponsored, seasonal, special events as local Covid cases continue to rise. On October 20, 2020, the City Commission directed the City Attorney to draft a resolution (2020-170) authorizing certain annual special events be permitted in downtown Fernandina Beach for the remainder of the 2020 calendar year during the Covid-19 pandemic with certain conditions to be attached for the protection of the health and safety of participants. Those events include: the Veterans’ Day Parade; City Christmas Tree lighting; Lighted Christmas Parade; and the New Year’s Eve Shrimp Drop.
Commissioners have consistently expressed uneasiness with authorizing events that do not allow participants to socially distance. Although they have at this time continued to support parades, events like the tree lighting and the New Year’s Eve celebration cause more people to be packed together closely.
City Manager Dale Martin informed Commissioners that Light Up Amelia has abandoned plans for the annual New Year’s Eve Shrimp Drop this year. Instead, they are proposing a fireworks display.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich led off the discussion by declaring that while he would support allowing the parades, he would not support the tree lighting or the New Year’s Eve fireworks. He said, “I cannot get behind authorizing the City to sponsor what could become super [virus] spreader events.” He expressed his desire to remove those two events from the Resolution and proceed on a wait-and-see basis until the City can obtain a clearer picture of the impact of Covid on the community. “I do not want on my head that [an event participant] returns home, transmits the virus to a family member, and someone dies,” Lednovich said.
He moved approval of the Resolution minus the tree lighting and the New Year’s Eve fireworks, while postponing a decision on those two events until the November 17 FBCC meeting. Vice Mayor Len Kreger seconded the motion.
Commissioner Phil Chapman expressed confusion over the motion. He said that parade viewers for the Christmas parade also pack in close together. “I don’t understand the logic behind what we are going to do,” he said. Kreger agreed, saying he felt that the FBCC was just kicking the can down the road two weeks. “If the Covid numbers keep rising, we should just cancel the events,” Kreger said. “I’m not sure that we shouldn’t just do that tonight.”
Commissioner Chip Ross said, “My position has remained that people need to wear masks, socially distance, and wash their hands. I think we should make that position clear to the event organizers.” He acknowledged that the situation was not perfect but that people will do what they decide to do, “whether we like it or not.” He said he would probably cancel the Christmas tree lighting, but put off a decision on other events until the Covid situation becomes clearer.
City Manager Dale Martin clarified that there will be a City Christmas Tree and it will be lighted, whether or not the lighting is part of a special event. Chapman suggested that members of the PEG Committee could film the tree lighting and broadcast it to the public on the City’s public access channel.
Convention Visitors Bureau President Gil Langley addressed the FBCC on efforts of his team to try to find ways to move forward with the tree lighting and New Year’s Eve event that would allow managing of social distancing requirements. The Christmas parade would be able to better accommodate social distanced crowds if no parking was allowed on Centre Street; the way to control the crowds at the waterfront would be to set up fencing and limit participants. “Frankly, the proposals we came up with are untenable,” Langley said.
Langley said that his organization is moving ahead with plans for “Dickens Lite” this year, spending $150K to light downtown trees and buildings. People will be able to enjoy the lights from inside their vehicles as they drive along Centre Street. There will not be a lighting ceremony. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for you [on ways to safely hold crowd events],” Langley said. “The Covid spikes are dangerous, and we can’t ignore what is going on around the country.”
Kreger said he would support the motion, but agreed that there is no good answer. He cited the CDC guidelines that Ross previously mentioned. “The situation is untenable, and we’ll return to it in two weeks,” he said.
The motion passed unanimously, allowing the Veterans Day and Christmas parades to be held. Discussion and decision on the tree lighting event and the New Year’s Eve event will continue at the November 17 FBCC meeting.