Is the glass half empty or half full?
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced May 15 that the state would enter “full phase 1” of reopening at half capacity for restaurants, retailers, museums, libraries, fitness centers and other operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The American people never signed up for a perpetual shelter in place,” DeSantis said in a televised news conference.
The phase 1 reopening was set for May 18, as The Islander went to press.
After a monthlong closure of nonessential businesses and tight limits on essential operations, restaurants opened dining rooms and retailers opened shops to 25% capacity May 4, in partial implementation of phase 1.
Beginning May 18, restaurants were allowed double capacity with social distancing and encouragement to utilize outdoor seating.
Barbershops, hair and nail salons were allowed to reopen May 11, but only 10 people are allowed in a business and they must maintain social distancing.
Fitness centers, allowed to open May 18, must adhere to social distancing guidelines, as well as requirements for sanitization.
“Bar areas” in restaurants were to remain closed, and owners were encouraged to adopt a reservation-only business model or call-ahead seating to manage interior spaces. Bars and nightclubs remained closed.
DeSantis, during a news conference May 15, reviewed what’s ahead with phase 2, including reopening schools and bars, allowing gatherings of up to 50 people while adhering to social distancing guidelines and increasing restaurant capacity.
So with beaches and businesses opening, visitors were returning to Anna Maria Island, resulting in foot traffic on Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach, Pine Avenue in Anna Maria and the shopping centers in Holmes Beach, including heavy vehicle traffic on the bridges and Gulf Drive and some parking problems.
Holmes Beach received complaints that people were parking at businesses and shopping centers to go to the beach, “and some store owners resorted to towing vehicles,” Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth wrote May 14 in an email to The Islander.
But Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer told The Islander May 15 that, besides the beach and some issues with parking, there wasn’t much excessive activity.
“We had a lot of people here on Saturday and Sunday,” Tokajer said. “But we were not overrun. We still had social distancing.”
In Anna Maria, Mayor Dan Murphy said May 9 “was one of unprecedented traffic and parking issues” due to an influx of visitors.
“The Saturday prior to Mother’s Day was an absolutely colossal day — for lack of a better word — for traffic, congestion and parking,” Murphy told city commissioners May 14. “We issued a record number of parking tickets that day.”
“It reminded me of the old days: Helter-skelter within the city,” he continued.
Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie said May 12 that May 9-10 was “extremely busy.”
“Social distancing was tough,” the mayor said. “A lot of people that were asked to (practice social distancing) didn’t really care, which was sad to hear.”
There were incidents of verbal abuse of police officers as they carried out their duties — issuing tickets or requesting social distancing compliance, according to Chappie. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Holmes Beach resident Mike Roaldi emailed The Islander May 13 and said Bridge Street May 9 looked “like Mardi Gras,” with crowds and people practicing “zero social distancing” and wearing “virtually no masks.”
“My point is that there was no sense whatsoever that there was any kind of health crisis,” Roaldi added. “Nothing was any different than it would have been prior to the lockdown.”
His wife, Carol Roaldi, said despite the hustle and bustle, Bridge Street businesses abided by capacity limits, social distancing and employees wore face coverings.
“While the atmosphere was fun, I felt the merchants were very responsible,” she said.
Officials on AMI had no issues with businesses on capacity or social distancing.
The Roaldis did not oppose the business activity on Bridge Street but instead challenged the continued limits on short-term vacation rentals, which could be changing.
“If we can go to restaurants and walk around outside, why would we not be allowed to stay in a vacation rental?” Carol Roaldi said. “Let’s be fair across the board.”
Vacation rental restrictions
The state, as of May 18, continued to prohibit short-term vacation rental advertising and new check-ins of fewer than 30 days.
The island cities have been issuing citations since late March to alleged offenders and reporting property owners and management companies to the state.
Murphy said law and code enforcement officers investigated 198 complaints of suspected vacation rental activity and identified 38 violations.
Three Anna Maria violators refused to comply with the state order and were given notices to appear in court for second-degree misdemeanors. The properties also were reported to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
At press time, the city was investigating another 10 complaints while another investigation, responding to a house party May 10 in the 100 block of North Bay Boulevard, resulted in the discovery of drugs and guns.
A group of people with open containers of alcohol bound for the party attracted law enforcement attention. At the property, where the owner later said his son had a party that got out of hand, deputies said there were at least 10 parked cars.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office report indicated several people jumped out of windows into a canal to flee the deputies, who found two guns, as well as 8 pounds of marijuana and 40 ecstasy pills.
No arrests were made.
In Holmes Beach, Titsworth said the city cited “a few more” rentals the week ending May 17, bringing the city’s violations to “about 10-15.”
One alleged violation involved a lodger who claimed an exemption because he was the owner’s nephew.
Tokajer consulted with the governor’s general council, which confirmed only the owner or an immediate family member were allowed in vacation rentals before the city gave the lodger a notice to appear in court and the property was reported to the DBPR.
Tokajer has supported the restriction on vacation rentals but also said he believes it should have applied to hotels, motels, inns and resorts.
Chappie did not respond to a May 14 email from The Islander asking about vacation rental violations.
The situation with rentals could change soon, as “full phase 1” allows county governments to submit a request with a safety plan to the DBPR to allow short-term vacation rentals.
Meeting early May 18, the Manatee County Tourist Development Council voted to recommend that the county submit a plan that follows public health guidelines to the DBPR to allow short-term rentals.
The county commission would need to approve the recommendation.