A socially-distanced Apalachicola city commission Monday evening sent the message that tourists should refrain from visiting, at least for the next week.
By unanimous consent at the special meeting, the commissioners – four of them seated at a distance at the Battery Park commission chambers and one of them calling in remotely from home – approved an emergency proclamation that, following their approval Tuesday morning of the final wording by email, would close lodging to all "tourists and leisure visitors" for seven days, beginning at noon Wednesday.
The proclamation makes an exception for all relatives of "citizens currently living in the city" as well as to medical and military personnel, government and emergency workers, contractors doing licensed work anywhere in the county, and "others engaged in government business or formal business" in the county.
The proclamation does not stipulate any penalties for violators, and gives those currently lodging seven days to leave. It also allows current marina renters to stay, but shuts the door on new marina or RV renters, beyond their staying here temporarily, to gas up and buy groceries.
"We’re not going to be able to go around to every single room and see who’s there," said Mayor Kevin Begos at Monday’s meeting. "We’re trying to send a proactive message. Whether this is going too far or not quite far enough, there’s never going to be any way to determine that.
"Will we ever know how effective it was? All I know is this is something within our power to do," he said.
Begos said the regulation of RVs in town will be at the discretion of Police Chief Bobby Varnes. He said he had spoke to lodging businesses in the city, many of which had already seen a drying up of visitors.
"They said they would respect what decision we made but some don’t want us to go this route," said the mayor.
Interim City Manager Chris Holley noted the situation statewide "is fluid and changes by the minute," with about half of the state’s cases of the pandemic coronavirus in South Florida.
"It’s hard here in the Panhandle to gauge the level of anxiety in South Florida," he said. "If we had 500 cases on our doorstep we’d be doing everything we could, building walls.
"I’m more focused on ‘Will this help?’" Holley said. "Maybe in a small way it sends a message. I think that’s what you’re trying to do. I think it will send a message throughout the Panhandle this is a tourist destination and we really don’t need you down here right now."
Begos told colleagues the Gibson Inn had voluntarily closed down its operations and lodging. He also noted the proclamation does not close down public boat ramps and marinas, as has been done in South Florida.
"We can’t stop them from coming down the intracoastal waterway," he said. "We’re taking a small step, where it’s a statement of how serious we take the threat."
Commissioner Adriane Elliott, who seconded Despina George’s motion to OK the proclamation, has championed strong measures, by both the county and city, to address the situation
"This is a huge problem, it is affecting the entire world right now," Elliott said. "Covid 19 does not care about our politics, it does not care about our economy.
"Our job is to protect our residents here," she said. "Our survival of this entire area is inextricably connected with others’ ability to have common sense, and I don’t trust everyone to have that."
Commissioner Anita Grove said she thought "one week closure for now is to give us some breathing room. I still feel one week is acceptable and we can revisit that every week."
Commissioners also responded to a report from Varnes that he had complaints of people buying take-out from downtown restaurants, and then gathering at tables in front of the restaurant to eat.
"That this is not in spirit of what we’re doing," Begos said, noting parties of 10 or fewer are technically not in violation of state guidelines.
"The chief said people can come to Battery Park or Riverfront Park and have a picnic," he said. "Do we want to allow groups of people to sit at a table?"
A short discussion ensued with some disagreement among commissioners whether eating on these tables, in the city right-of-way, constituted on or off-premises.
"The table is clearly part of their establishment," said Begos. "Are we comfortable that restaurants should remove tables from the sidewalk, and tell them that people are not to sit at those tables?"
In the end, all agreed Varnes should ask these establishments to remove the tables from active use.