Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 16, 2020
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) scheduled a workshop on July 15, 2020 to discuss formulating a plan to protect residents, should the rate of Covid-19 infections continue to rise in the County. The workshop began an hour and a half later than its scheduled time due to overlap with the scheduled mediation session between the FBCC and the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA).
Several members of the public and local business community were in attendance. However, the Nassau County Health Department did not send a representative, due to a scheduling conflict.
In opening the meeting, Fernandina Beach Mayor John Miller explained the steps that the City has taken to date mandating the wearing of face coverings in indoor public spaces. He asked for discussion on the development of protocols for additional measures, should the rate of virus infection fail to level off. Milller and other commissioners stressed that despite various rumors circulating in the community, there was no action contemplated at this time to close businesses or require gym patrons to wear face coverings. But he stressed that public safety is the most important job of the City. As rates of infection continue to climb, he believed that the City needs to develop a plan now that is ready to be implemented immediately, if it becomes necessary.
Commissioners agreed to consult with the Nassau County Health Department on establishing a rate of infection that would serve as a trigger to further restrictions. Miami-Dade used 25 percent as the infection rate requiring them to return to Phase I CDC protocols which included closing bars, beaches and other public areas. They agreed that absent guidance from the Health Department on this matter, they could only offer suggestions for possible actions.
Some of the possible actions discussed, but not adopted, included:
- Setting occupancy limits for Main Beach and Seaside Park
- Establishing more restrictive indoor occupancy limits;
- Closing Centre Street to traffic between 5th and Front Streets.
Commissioners called for better enforcement of existing occupancy and social distancing requirements in restaurants and other places of business.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that he has noted a significant increase in the number of people wearing masks following the city’s making such action mandatory. While in general agreement, other commissioners lamented the lack of enforcement in those establishments that have for political or other reasons refused to require staff or patrons to wear face coverings.
City Code Enforcement Officer Michelle Forstrom, in responding for calls for more code enforcement personnel, advised the FBCC that she can only pass along complaints she receives to the Police Department, where the enforcement responsibility resides. Violations of the mask/social distancing Resolution are second degree criminal misdemeanors.
City Commissioner Chip Ross said that the current pandemic is not going away soon, and may still be with the community in 6 months to a year. He said that the goal of any plan must be to curtail the spread of the virus. He reiterated the actions supported by the CDC and the Health Department, stressing that for the infection rate to drop the community needs full participation and support of face covering, social distancing and hand washing. He said that key to bringing down the rate of infection is contact tracing, which has lagged behind.
Mayor Miller said that contact tracing, in addition to being hampered by personnel shortages, is also hampered by the 7-10 day lag time between virus testing and receiving results.
Commissioner Ross asked his fellow commissioners what would happen if they “pulled the trigger” following achieving a positive test result at some as yet to be determined higher threshhold. Concerns were raised that if the city adopted more drastic measures without similar action by Nassau County, problems would only migrate from the city into the county, where city residents might be at higher risk. Commissioners cited the lack of leadership coming from higher levels of government to address the problem.
Consensus was that the Health Department must step up to the challenges, possibly seeking assistance from local governments for additional resources.
Members of the public expressed fears and concerns of the business community. Main Street Executive Director Arlene Filkoff said that if Centre Street businesses were required to close again, many would not be able to afford to reopen. She also called upon the City to step up to help those businesses that are trying to enforce the face covering and social distancing mandates. She reported that some businesses are flagrantly ignoring the mandate, making it even harder for businesses that are doing all they can to comply. She pointed to what appeared to be a loophole in the current ordinance which allows businesses to disregard the face cocvering requirement if they consider that they are complying with social distancing.
Commissioners reviewed the language in Resolution 2020-94 and by motion and unanimous vote removed the loophole, thereby requiring face masks indoors — period. In response to concerns of gyms that such a requirement was impractical for their patrons, they repeated the exception provided for in the ordinance, which states that if wearing a face mask “significantly interferes with the provision or receipt of goods or services offered or received.” They stated affirmatively that people exercising in gyms were not required to wear a face mask.
Because the meeting was billed as a workshop and not a special meeting, a question arose over the propriety of taking the action that amended Resolution 2020-94. City Attorney Tammi Bach said that the item will appear on the July 21, 2020 FBCC Regular Meeting agenda where it will have been publicly noticed for public input and FBCC action.