Tag Archives: Feature

COVID-19 cases reach record highs in Manatee County

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Gary Reformina, a registered nurse with the Florida Department of Health-Manatee, collects a COVID-19 testing specimen June 11 at Presbyterian Villas retirement community in Bradenton. Islander Photo: Courtesy DOH-Manatee

Manatee County — Positive cases of coronavirus are trending up again in the state and Manatee County.

The state exceeded the record number of cases in a single day at least twice in the past week.

Also, as the state’s positive case rate curved upward after the rate of daily new cases started decreasing in May, the county’s rate also trended upward.

The county’s rate of positive cases increased June 16 from 5.1% to 5.3%. The state was at 5.4%.

Before the uptick, the county’s positive rate had dropped 9.4% from its peak at 14.5% in early May.

The Florida Department of Health reported June 11-14 the highest four-day increase in positive cases in the county since the pandemic was reported in the area in early March.

On June 15, there were 70 new cases reported in the county.

As of June 18, 28,665 people in the county had been tested — about 7% of the population of 402,253 people.

Of those tested, 1,513 residents and 10 nonresidents — people with an out-of-state address but diagnosed in the county — tested positive as of June 18.

At a June 16 teleconferenced county commission meeting, county public safety director Jake Saur, gave a report on COVID-19.

Saur said the increases could be due to more testing in healthier populations. He said the previous testing was focused on the elderly and those with symptoms.

However, with “drastically increased testing,” more people without symptoms were getting tested and testing positive, according to Saur.

“There’s a much wider population being tested now and, within that younger, healthier population, a lot of them are asymptomatic,” he said.

As of May 17, 9,984 people had been tested in the county, compared with nearly 28,000 people tested a month later.

Saur said the county’s goal was to test another 2% of the population — about 1,000 people by early July.

He said the DOH started testing at mobile home parks and retirement communities. Testing continued at six Manatee Rural Health Inc. locations, a walk-up site at Lincoln Park in Palmetto, and a state-sponsored regional testing site at the Mall at University Town Center in Sarasota.

The state also opened a walk-up testing location at Home Depot, 2350 Cortez Road, Bradenton.

Saur said the migrant community was proving to be a hot spot, with groups of people working and living together. He said the county targeted migrant workers for testing.

However, he said anyone can get tested and, he also emphasized the importance of continuing the practices of hand-washing and wearing face masks in public.

Face masks can reduce the spread of the virus by blocking airborne particles, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Now is not the time to panic, but it is the time to reinforce wearing a face mask and adhering to CDC guidelines,” Saur said.

Commissioner Misty Servia said Dr. Jennifer Bencie, health officer at DOH-Manatee, told her the median age for the virus in the county, excluding residents and workers at long-term care facilities, was 42.

Servia said she asked Bencie if the higher numbers were the result of increased testing and that Bencie responded, “Absolutely not. It is beyond that,” implying the increase was due to community spread.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she recently attended an event where most attendees were younger than herself, and she was the only person in a mask.

“Even if you don’t care about it, you need to think about the person sitting next to you,” she said. “I guess until your family member gets it, or a good friend, you’re not going to realize how dangerous this is.”

Tourism experts track travelers’ sentiments during pandemic

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Michele Schulz, field services and collections director at the Manatee County Tax Collector’s office, addresses the TDC June 15 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto. To inform people of pandemic rules for leasing short-term vacation rentals, the tax collector’s office contacted more than 7,000 property owners by email and U.S. mail. Islander Screenshot
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, addresses the Manatee County Tourist Development Council during a meeting June 15 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto. Islander Screenshot

Manatee County — Tourism experts asked potential Manatee County visitors for the word that describes their “feelings about travel right now.”

The answers read like the “cautious” entry in a thesaurus: anxious, fearful, concerned, hesitant, apprehensive, wary.

The latest results to the “Traveler Sentiment Survey,” launched as the coronavirus pandemic derailed local tourism, were presented June 15 to the Manatee County Tourist Development Council by Anne Wittine of Research Data Services, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors’ consultant.

The meeting was at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto, with most attendees wearing masks and sitting 6 feet apart.

Wittine said the survey, conducted weekly, showed people felt less safe in June than in late May.

In the second week of June, about 42% of respondents said Florida was reopening too quickly after more than a month under “safer-at-home” orders. About 34% felt that way the first week of June.

Respondents said their travel concerns included not being able to return home, being quarantined away from home and dealing with canceled flights.

Wittine also presented a series of statistics on tourism impact, saying, “These numbers really seem like a bad April Fools’ joke.”

In March, overnight stays grossed about $1.78 million in bed taxes and the collection was down 34.59% from March 2019.

In April, overnight stays generated $449,904 in bed taxes, down 69.81% from April 2019. The bed tax, or tourist development tax, is the 5% collected on overnight rentals of six months or less.

Visits in commercial lodging — hotels, motels or condos — were down 8.6% for the second quarter compared to January-March 2019.

Direct expenditures for visitors in the second quarter were $277,999,500, down 7.1% compared to the same period the year before.

Total economic impact for visitors in the second quarter was $439 million, down 7.1% from the year before.

Occupancy was down 8.9% for the second quarter.

Visitors were down 40.2% to 55,500 in March, the first month in which Florida was dealing with — or reeling from — the pandemic.

In April, with much of tourism shut down or restricted, visitation was down 82.3%.

For March, room nights totaled 138,600, down 33.7% from March 2019, and the total economic impact for the month was down 38.4% to about $110 million.

Anna Maria Island’s occupancy fell 30.4% in March and, countywide in April, occupancy was down 83.4%.

“May occupancy was averaging about 40%, which is down, but is a huge increase from … April,” Wittine said.

In other business, the TDC heard the following reports:

  • John Horne, owner of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar restaurants, represented the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association at the meeting.

“One of the things that was a huge shot in the arm for lodging and restaurants was the work you guys did to get short-term rentals open,” he said, referring to the lifting of a ban on vacation rentals of less than a month in Manatee County. The ban was imposed March 27 and lifted May 23.

  • At Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport, passenger traffic increased from 9,742 passengers in April to 39,988 passengers in May.

However, May traffic was down 71% compared with May 2019.

SRQ representative Mark Stuckey said airlines were adding services, the “terminal is sparkling clean” and all airlines operating from the airport require passengers to wear masks.

“You don’t find that when you go out and around the town,” he said. “When you are at the airport, about 99.9% of everybody is wearing masks.”

The next TDC meeting will be at 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 17, tentatively at Holmes Beach City Hall, 5801 Marina Drive.

 

County commission reappoints 2 TDC seats

Manatee County commissioners unanimously voted June 16 to reappoint two mayors to the tourist development council.

Two people — Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant and Longboat Key Commissioner Ed Zunz — applied for a seat reserved for an elected official. Bryant held the seat and was reappointed.

The commission also reappointed Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston to the seat representing his city, although another appointment will be required in November, as Poston is not seeking reelection.

The advisory committee makes recommendations to county commissioners on expenditures of tourist tax revenues — the 5% tax on accommodations of six months or less.

The board includes Poston, Bryant, county Commissioner Misty Servia, hoteliers Jiten Patel, Ed Chiles, Eric Cairns and Barbara Baker and citizens Jack Rynerson and Vernon DeSear.

The commission meeting was at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto.

The next TDC meeting will be Monday, Aug, 17, tentatively at Holmes Beach City Hall.

— Lisa Neff

 

 

About the TDC

The advisory committee makes recommendations to the board of county commissioners on the expenditures of tourist tax revenues — a 5% tax on accommodations of six months or less.

The board includes Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia, Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant, hoteliers Jiten Patel, Ed Chiles, Eric Cairns and Barbara Baker and citizens Jack Rynerson and Vernon DeSear.

 

Anna Maria City Pier opens quietly amid patron enthusiasm

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New Anna Maria City Pier opens minus pomp, pageantry Jack Elka captures the new Anna Maria City Pier from on high with his camera drone at the opening at 8 a.m. June 19, with a view of the first people allowed on the pier and, beyond, the city of Anna Maria and the Gulf of Mexico.
About 50 people who waited landside flood onto the new Anna Maria City Pier June 19, as the gate swung open for the first time in nearly three years at 8 a.m. The city built the new pier to replace the original 1911-built pier, which was demolished by the city in 2018 following a declaration of damages caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017. The total cost is estimated at $6.8 million, according to Mayor Dan Murphy, who declined to provide a breakdown. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy
Joseph Dolan, 13, of Palmetto, was among the first to arrive to the Anna Maria City Pier on opening day June 19, and also the first to reel up a fish — a small snapper — at the T-end of the new pier, 101 Bay Blvd. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Allen
Frank Agnelli, partner in Mason Martin Construction, the contractor for the restaurant and bait shop on the T-end of the new Anna Maria City Pier, and his daughter, Sadie, 6, of Holmes Beach, were the first two people to walk through the gates at the opening, June 19. Agnelli said, “Building this pier was a great privilege.” Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Allen

Anna Maria — Renewed.

It took nearly two years for the new pier to welcome people to the boards.

At long last, the new Anna Maria City Pier opened June 19 to sightseers and anglers.

The pier at the east end of Pine Avenue in Anna Maria was built to replace the historic pier, which opened in 1911 but was removed by the city after damage from Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

An initial crowd of about 50 people made its way down the walkway to the T-end June 19, where Mayor Dan Murphy and Commissioners Carol Carter and Amy Tripp were waiting to greet visitors.

Due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, the city postponed a ribbon-cutting event in lieu of a “soft opening,” but officials plan to hold a celebration honoring those who contributed to the pier, according to Murphy.

“I’m very happy with how it went,” Murphy said of the opening. “It was a really nice crowd with lots of families. And that made me feel good.”

Tripp also said she enjoyed seeing families on the pier.

“So many people said they missed the pier and how happy they were it was open again,” she said. “Seeing all the families with kids was great. I feel like it will really be a community-connector,”

Carter estimated 3,000-4,000 people visited the pier June 19.

“I loved seeing many residents of the island and Manatee County, who had so looked forward to being able to walk out on the pier,” she said. “For many months they’ve been anticipating this as they’ve been watching things develop.”

Anna Maria resident Skip Roach, his wife Marie and granddaughter Catherine were among the first people on the pier when it opened.

“I’ve been coming out here every day at sunrise,” Roach said. “I was heartbroken when it was damaged. But here we are today. And it is beautiful.”

 

AM officials preview pier

Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law limits when two or more officials on the same board can gather for discussions.

On June 19, as members of the public were held back at the gate to the new Anna Maria City Pier, Mayor Dan Murphy and Commissioners Carol Carter and Amy Tripp were observed on the T-end of the pier prior to the 8 a.m. opening.

Murphy and Carter each told The Islander in separate phone calls after the pier opening that they arrived early to set up tables, check the bathrooms and ensure masks were available for the public.

There was no ribbon-cutting, speaker, refreshments or entertainment at the opening.

Tripp said she too arrived before the gates opened and that she and Carter chatted about their families while awaiting the crowd. Carter concurred.

The mayor and commissioners each told The Islander that no city business was discussed.

Per state regulations, the event notice posted on the bulletin board at city hall in advance of June 19, stated, “There may be one or more commissioners, committee members, or board members on the city pier at one time during the opening of the city pier, June 19-21, 2020. There will be no city business conducted at this time.”

The notice was not posted to the city website nor was it provided to The Islander until after the meeting.

And many times, in many Sunshine Law training sessions, all who attended have heard the attorneys and others who conduct the mandatory training, advising officials of elected and appointed boards to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

— ChrisAnn Allen

Anna Maria City pier to open minus fanfare, lease talks continue

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With rails near shore and benches throughout, the new Anna Maria City Pier, 101 Bay Blvd., is ready for visitors. The city plans to open the pier June 19. See story, page 3. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Allen

ANNA MARIA – “Everything is a go,” Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy told commissioners meeting June 11 about the new Anna Maria City Pier.

Following two years of construction, the city was set to open the pier to sightseers and anglers June 19.

However, there will be no service for bait or food and beverages.

The new pier was built to replace the historic pier, which opened in 1911 but was closed after it was damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, the city delayed a “grand reopening” event in lieu of a “soft opening,” according to Murphy.

Stipulations were set, including:

  • Pier hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday-Sunday, until further notice;
  • There is no food, beverage or bait and tackle service available on the pier;
  • Although no alcoholic beverages are allowed, visitors and anglers may bring a cooler;
  • Seating is available around the pier for fishing and sightseeing;
  • Social distancing is required and face masks are optional;
  • Manatee County Sheriff’s deputies will be on-site and available for assistance during operating hours.

Murphy said the city would consider extending the days and hours in about 30-45 days.

City commissioners planned to gather at 8 a.m. June 19 to greet guests when the pier opens.

In the meantime, Murphy said June 11 that contractor inspections almost were complete.

Previously, he said the city hopes to have the restaurant and bait shop open in late 2020 or early 2021.

Either the new tenant or the city will undertake the build-out of those areas.

The city commission voted in May to approve the bid from the Ugly Grouper restaurant, 5704 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, and the mayor is in negotiations to set the lease terms with the owners.

Meanwhile, city attorney Becky Vose is working to finalize the terms with former tenant, Mario Schoenfelder, whose lease ends Dec. 15.

Vose reported June 11 that a settlement was not yet reached, but communications with Schoenfelder’s attorney were going well.

“Negotiations have been very courteous and we are making a lot of progress,” Vose said.

Regarding the Ugly Grouper, Murphy said fact-finding, including pier maintenance, was underway, with ideas being exchanged between himself and restaurant co-owner Mike Ross.

He said he anticipated Ross would present a proposal to city commissioners at the end of June or beginning of July.

The next Anna Maria City Commission meeting will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 25, at city hall, 10005 Gulf Drive.

Island cities open doors, phase 2 boosts business

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Anna Maria administrative assistant Stephanie Janney distributes documents June 11 to city commissioners at the city’s first in-person meeting since March. Islander Photos: Ryan Paice
Patrons of the Anchor Inn, 3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, mingle June 11 as barkeeper Brad Albrecht takes a seat with them at the bar.

ANNA MARIA – Almost all businesses on Anna Maria Island are open.

And the three city governments are following suit.

The Anna Maria City Commission held its first in-person meeting, including a public audience, June 11 after teleconferencing meetings for three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city required that everyone wear face masks in the city chamber, providing masks to those who had none.

The meeting occurred less than a week after phase 2 of Florida’s reopening plan went into effect, allowing bars and libraries to reopen, lifting capacity limits on some businesses and keeping restrictions on others.

Anna Maria reopened city hall, 10005 Gulf Drive, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. June 8, but with safety measures intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including social distancing and twice-daily sanitizing practices.

In Holmes Beach, Mayor Judy Titsworth said June 12 that city hall, 5801 Marina Drive, would reopen 8 a.m.-4 p.m. June 15, as The Islander went to press.

Titsworth said the city would implement safety measures similar to Anna Maria’s.

Whether Holmes Beach resumes in-person meetings will be decided by Commission Chair Jim Kihm, according to the mayor.

“He’ll probably keep them on Zoom until he feels comfortable or (Gov. Ron DeSantis) requires it,” Titsworth said. “We’re working on a way to also broadcast them on TV. So, even if people don’t feel comfortable with going out, but want to know what’s going on, they can watch from home.”

Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie said June 12 the city was “close to pulling the trigger” on reopening to the public.

He said city hall, 107 Gulf Drive N., may reopen to the public the week beginning June 15, including for government meetings.

 

Boosting business

Meanwhile, island business owners reported the first week of phase 2 brought bumps in traffic to their stores, restaurants and bars, as well as boosts in revenue.

“Since reopening, business has been strong,” said Brad Albrecht, a barkeeper at the Anchor Inn, 3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach. “So far, so good.”

Albrecht said finances suffered during the shutdown on bars that began March 17.

“But I feel like people understood that and, as we got back open, they’ve been generous in helping us get back on our feet,” he added.

At the Anna Maria Oyster Bar restaurant on the Historic Bridge Street Pier, managing partner Lynn Horne said, “It’s been getting better every week. We’ve seen a lot of families coming out and enjoying the beach and bars now.”

“I think they’re just happy to be out,” he added.

Horne observed an uptick in visitors in late May and June.

Under the governor’s executive order, restaurants remained limited to 50% capacity, but Horne said he was satisfied with the reopening plan.

“I’d love to get back to 100% capacity,” he said. “I’d be a bad businessman if I didn’t want to see that, but I think we’re moving at a good pace right now.”

But Bee Granger, an employee at Mr. Bones BBQ, 3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, was ready to begin phase 3.

“Business has gotten better lately,” Granger said. “But, because we have such a small dining room, we really need phase 3 to happen so we can get more people in here.”

Mr. Bones must distance dining parties 6 feet apart and lacks outdoor seating.

“All the small businesses are struggling,” Granger said. “I feel like the big guys, the corporations, are making out like bandits, while it’s really difficult for the small guy just to keep their doors open.”

Lauren Collins, owner of Island Charms, 501 Pine Ave., Anna Maria, saw a modest uptick in business after the state lifted capacity limits on retailers.

“I wouldn’t say it’s busy in comparison to last year, but it’s just going to take time,” she said. “In general, I have seen more traffic.”

Collins said only about 10% of the customers enter the shop with face masks.

“I would rather everybody stay safe,” she added.

She wasn’t alone in her concerns.

“All anyone has to do is wash their hands and wear the goddamn masks,” restaurateur Sean Murphy said. “Just wear the goddamn mask.”

Murphy owns three Holmes Beach businesses — Beach Bistro, 6600 Gulf Drive, his flagship restaurant, Doctor’s Office craft cocktail bar, 5312 Holmes Blvd., and Eat Here, 5315 Gulf Drive.

Murphy likened getting ordered to shut down business operations to hitting a pothole while biking down a steep hill.

But he isn’t fully on board with the state’s reopening plan, even as it’s ongoing.

Murphy said The Doctor’s Office and Eat Here were only offering takeout despite being allowed to reopen to varying capacities.

“We’re not serving inside yet because it’s not safe,” he said. “The people that are coming to us looking for service are being unrealistic in a sense that they believe this thing is over now and they don’t have to worry anymore.”

Additionally, Murphy adopted strict guidelines beyond what the CDC suggests and new routines, including checking staff members’ temperatures before their shifts.

Murphy said the Beach Bistro remained closed, partly for installation of a new state-of-the-art air conditioning system and in concert with added technology. The new system will kill airborne particles — including the coronavirus — using ultraviolet light.

As for the precautions he put in place for the safety of staff and patrons, he said,           “If we don’t wear masks and we’re not careful, then we’re going to see a second wave in September.”

But, he’s seen people celebrating as if the pandemic is over.

“I feel the restaurants that are opening and flooding with people are going to create pandemic environments and it’s going to be bad for their businesses in the long run,” he said.

State reps join Holmes Beach parking protest

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Parking protesters raise homemade signs June 9 in opposition of reduced on-street parking in Holmes Beach. About 50 people lined up June 9 in the 5800 block of Marina Drive, outside at city hall, protesting parking restrictions recently approved by the city commission. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Allen
About 50 people line up June 9 in the 5800 block of Marina Drive, outside of Holmes Beach City Hall, to protest parking restrictions in advance of a city meeting.
Copy of Galvano-Robinson letter

HOLMES BEACH – People assumed parking would reopen once the spread of coronavirus was lessened.

And they were about half right.

Senate President Bill Galvano and State Rep. Will Robinson, both Bradenton Republicans, shared their “growing concern” for the city’s restrictions June 11 in a joint letter to Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth.

In late April, city commissioners agreed to a parking plan proposed by Police Chief Bill Tokajer that removed 1,100 parking spaces previously open to the public — a decrease of about 45% of spots within a quarter-mile of the beach.

On-street parking for the remaining spots in Holmes Beach reopened June 5.

The parking plan was never placed on a meeting agenda, as traffic regulations are left to the discretion of the city traffic engineer — the police chief — so long as plans are supported by the commission, according to the city charter.

No vote was taken, but the commission reached a consensus during a public teleconference meeting.

Since then, residents, off-islanders and county and state officials have posted to social media, written letters and called city officials with concerns that parking was removed — without public input — under the veil of COVID-19.

Galvano and Robinson wrote:

“Florida’s Legislature has invested significant taxpayer dollars to support the long-term health of our local beaches, yet local government is now eliminating parking, effectively restricting public access to public beaches. While social distancing and other precautions are a responsible and important part of safely reopening our state, our constituents are outraged that such measures are now being used as an excuse to impose long-sought restrictions on public parking.”

In her June 12 response, Titsworth wrote, “With a population of 400,000+ in the county, 10,000 people moving to the county each year and 700,000+ tourists each year, we cannot, as a small city, allow this unrestricted parking to continue to creep farther and farther into our neighborhoods.”

Public unrest over the change led to a June 9 protest outside city hall. About 50 people waved signs that read, “Save our beach parking,” or similar.

Mike O’Connor, who grew up on the island and resides in Bradenton, said he is concerned traffic will become more congested and businesses could suffer.

“This didn’t resolve anything other than a power grab during COVID-19,” he said. “At a time when people have lost income, more support was taken away. And that’s just not right.”

At the teleconferenced city meeting on the heels of the demonstration, more than 100 people tuned in, including Michael Barfield, a consultant on open government lawsuits and president of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Barfield said June 12 that he filed a records request for the meeting minutes when the plan was approved to evaluate how the commission reached consensus.

Before people spoke June 9, Tokajer presented the commission with information about the plan.

“Our purpose is to take control of how many people park in our neighborhoods,” he said. “This is a public safety issue and has been ongoing for many years.”

He noted that Bradenton Beach does not permit on-street parking and the city of Anna Maria has limited parking to one side on many beach streets.

Holmes Beach planning commissioner Gale Tedhams asked Tokajer what residents should do if they want to have an event and guest parking.

Tokajer said to call the police department and request a special use. An officer would cover “no parking” signs in the area with a locking bag, so people could park for the interim.

Noelle Conover, a seasonal resident, suggested permits or vehicle stickers for residents.

Tokajer said that is a possibility: “We are going to continue to review every option.”

In a June 10 interview with The Islander, Tokajer said claims of discrimination against off-islanders are unsubstantiated.

“We want guests to come here. We also want them to be respectful while they’re here and we have struggles with that,” he said. “But the anger aimed at Holmes Beach needs to be redirected at the county.”

He said the county funded an island traffic study in 2015, but has not followed the recommendations provided in the analysis.

“The county needs to step up with some viable traffic solutions that do not turn the city’s neighborhoods into a parking lot for more than 400,000 (county) residents,” Tokajer said.

At the June 9 meeting, commissioners reiterated their support for the parking restrictions, but agreed the plan is a work in progress and more public input is warranted.

“I would hope that as we move forward, that we can try to cooperate and find solutions that work mutually for addressing this issue of lack of sufficient parking on the island,” Commission Chair Jim Kihm said. “Not just the city of Holmes Beach. It’s the island.”

County commissioners were expected to address the issue June 16.

Opposition mounts to HB parking plan

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People wave signs and shout as passing motorists honk approval June 9 during a protest at Holmes Beach City Hall against parking reductions. Islander Photo: Rolf Bertram

HOLMES BEACH – They’re upset and they showed it.

People demonstrated in advance of the June 9 virtual Holmes Beach City Commission meeting and about 100 people attended the telemeeting.

A recent reduction of about 1,100 on-street parking spots, following a nearly complete parking shutdown of parking during the COVID-19 beach closure, prompted a maelstrom of responses.

Although not on the meeting agenda, parking was discussed during public comment. About 15 people spoke and several letters were read into the record.

Former Commissioner Rick Hurst, who is pursuing a commission seat in the 2020 election, said he circulated and garnered more than 200 signatures “quite easily” for a petition opposing the parking change.

“The majority of residents do not approve this plan,” he said.

A letter from Palma Sola resident Karen Riley-Love, who operates a wedding business and is a photo-correspondent for The Islander, was read into the record by Commission Chair Jim Kihm, said, “I am concerned that this is happening too quickly, without input from residents and businesses affected by the changes.”

Karen Gertz-Casper, a Holmes Beach resident, said, “My family comes here because they know they can park at my house and easily have beach access. That’s been taken away. … So what do you plan to do for our residents?”

Holmes Beach resident Renee Ferguson said she favors the parking reduction, saying people park on her lawn and leave behind dirty diapers. “I just don’t think it’s fair that our city needs to be the sole provider of the parking.”

Holmes Beach resident Nancy Deal said she supports the change and cited an island traffic study that determined, “Free parking is not a right.”

“We cannot have unfettered parking on this island anymore, with all the problems it brings to our community,” said Deal, who suggested a town hall meeting to discuss parking solutions.

Residents react to parking cuts, HB chief responds

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Parking along 36th Street in Holmes Beach near the beach access is posted June 4: “No parking beyond this point.” The city planned to reopen on-street parking June 5, but with about 1,100 fewer spots than before the closure for COVID-19. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Allen
Even on a rainy day, people gather June 4 in large numbers at the Manatee Public Beach, 4000 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, as parking on city streets remained closed. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Allen

As the state has phased in more activities, Holmes Beach has phased out parking.

And some people are concerned with how the reduction of about 1,100 parking spaces will impact Anna Maria Island.

In late April, Holmes Beach commissioners agreed to a plan proposed by Police Chief Bill Tokajer that removed parking spaces from city rights of way once the city reopened parking.

The city closed nearly all of its beach access, right of way and on-street parking April 10 due to concerns over the spread of the virus.

In her June 4 COVID-19 report, Mayor Judy Titsworth said the city would reopen under the new parking plan June 5.

A letter opposing the plan from former Commissioner Rick Hurst was posted to social media June 2, prompting a flurry of comments from people on and off the island.

The letter led to an online petition that asks Holmes Beach to reinstate parking as it had been in the city before the closures.

In addition, a parking protest was announced to take place outside city hall, 5801 Marina Drive, at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 9, after press time for The Islander.

A teleconferenced city commission meeting was to start at 6 p.m. June 9, and protestors posted on social media that they would dial into the meeting during public comment.

In his letter, Hurst said the city “decided to permanently eliminate close to 2,000 parking spots, which will reduce street parking from approximately 2,500 spots down to 479 spots plus 120 golf cart spots.”

Tokajer responded in a June 4 email that the city previously offered 2,405 on-street parking spaces within a quarter-mile of the beach, but the new restrictions would allow 1,303 parking spots within that area, including two spots near each beach access for golf cart/LSV parking.

“This is a reduction in on-street parking of 1,102 spots or approximately 45%,” the chief wrote.

He said the 479 spots Hurst referred to are the parking spaces the city reports to the state for beach renourishment. He said 364 parking spots are required to maintain funding for renourishment projects.

Hurst also wrote in his letter that he is worried about how the parking reduction will impact businesses, visitors and traffic.

Tokajer responded that businesses have their own parking and can tow those who illegally park at their establishments.

“We have never said neighbors are not wanted. We are only saying that we need to take control of how many people park in our residential neighborhoods,” he said.

Regarding traffic, Tokajer said 18,000-26,000 motorists pass through the city each day

“So what difference is it whether we have 16,000 or 17,500 vehicles without spots? We will always have people driving in circles looking for parking as we have every weekend — even when we had 2,000-2,500 parking places permitted.”

Hurst also wrote that it appears the plan was implemented “very quickly, with little input and in the vacuum of COVID-19 restrictions.”

Tokajer responded that the proposal was approved unanimously by commission consensus after being reviewed by the mayor and discussed at three public meetings.

County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, a former Holmes Beach mayor, told The Islander June 3 that she is distressed the city chose to limit long-established parking areas.

“I don’t think the cities are looking at it from a 30,000-foot level,” she said.

Whitmore also said she spoke with people who live off-island, who, after visiting the same beach for more than 40 years, will not be able to park.

“So this is more than just tourism, it is county people and islanders that will have to go where the city tells us to go,” she said. “They should have discussed this at a public meeting when the city opens up.”

Ten-year Holmes Beach resident Dave Welch said he is worried the change will make it difficult for people who live in the city but not close to the beach, to access the shore.

He also was alarmed that the parking decision wasn’t held for a meeting with the public present.

“I can understand during the peak of COVID-19 they wanted to limit people in the city. It made me feel safe,” Welch said. “But the way they implemented this was sneaky and I was surprised, to say the least.”

County numbers decline amid warning: ‘Pandemic is not over’

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Jake Saur, Manatee County public safety director, presents an update on the new coronavirus June 2, during a teleconferenced county commission meeting at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto. Islander Courtesy Photo

The number of daily positive cases is decreasing, but the coronavirus is not gone.

For several weeks, Manatee County has held 10th place among 67 counties for positive cases of the new virus.

As of June 5, the county had tested 21,300 people — about 5.3% of the population of 402,253 people.

At a June 2 teleconferenced county commission meeting, public safety director Jake Saur gave a report on COVID-19 in the county.

He said about 40%-45% of new cases were either residents or staff of long-term care facilities.

The Florida Department of Health-Manatee County was working on an action plan with the residential facilities, including testing for all residents and staff, guidance from infection control practitioners and a prohibition on new residents, according to Saur.

Saur said the state recently had an uptick in positive cases, while Manatee County’s positive case count trended downward.

June 1 was the first day since early March that the percentage of positive cases in those tested mirrored the state’s rate at 5.5%.

The county’s positive rate dropped 9% since testing increased in May.

The percentage of positive numbers lessened, but cases still were being confirmed daily in Manatee County as of June 5.

As of June 5, there were:

  • 105 fatalities in Manatee County attributed to COVID-19;
  • 220 people were hospitalized;
  • More than 605 people had tested positive and recovered.

Residents and staff of long-term care facilities accounted for 63 deaths, totaling 60% of fatalities in Manatee County related to COVID-19.

As of June 5, 139 residents and 37 staff members tested positive, totaling 176 positive cases in LTCFs — 15% of 1,162 Manatee County cases.

While new positive cases were reported daily in the county, the percentage of new positive cases in LTCFs decreased by 5% from the week prior.

Saur said the county’s goal was to test another 2% of the population by early July.

He said the DOH reported it planned to initiate mobile testing operations at mobile home parks. Meanwhile, testing continued at six Manatee Rural Health locations and a state-sponsored regional testing site at the Mall at University Town Center in Sarasota.

“The pandemic is not over,” Saur said. “While we may be heading in the right direction with our efforts to reduce or stop the spread of COVID-19, and while we may see businesses and extra-curricular activities resume, COVID-19 is still very present in our community.”

Business owners enthusiastic for Anna Maria pier opening

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The new Anna Maria City Pier, 101 Bay Blvd., bustles June 4 with activity as the contractor finalizes the project. The city plans to open the pier June 19. Islander Photo: ChrisAnn Allen

It’s been nearly three years since Hurricane Irma did irreparable damage to the historic Anna Maria City Pier.

But it won’t be long before a new pier is ready for visitors.

And nearby business owners are hopeful pedestrian traffic in the city will pick up when the pier opens June 19.

“We’re very excited for it to open,” former Commissioner Brian Seymour, owner of the Pine Avenue General store, 503 Pine Ave, said June 4. “I know right now it is only going to be open during the day, but, hopefully, that will help our foot traffic on Pine Avenue.”

City commissioners May 28 consented to Mayor Dan Murphy’s proposal for a limited opening for the pier 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

The city opted to delay a grand opening due to the coronavirus restrictions and safety guidelines. The pier will be limited to fishers and strollers, and no large crowds or alcoholic beverages will be allowed.

The city agreed to consider extending the days and hours after 30-45 days.

The city plans to pay off-duty deputies from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office to keep watch on the pier activities during the operating hours.

The new pier was built to replace the pier that opened in 1911 but was closed, and ultimately demolished by the city, after damages from Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Construction on the new pier started in 2018.

“For so long now, people keep coming in and asking me, ‘When is it opening?’” Pat Slusser, owner of Chapae boutique, 101 S. Bay Blvd., said June 4. “I’m so happy that now I can tell them a date.”

Ed Chiles, Anna Maria resident and owner of the Sandbar Restaurant, 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria, among other businesses, also is a member of the county tourist development council that contributed $1.5 million in pier funding. He said June 4 that he is looking forward to the opening.

“I think we are all excited to continue the 110-year tradition of kids, families and individuals creating great memories on this island paradise,” Chiles said. “And a soft opening is prudent in light of the COVID-19 situation.”

In the meantime, Murphy told The Islander June 4, “The pier has been completed and final inspections are taking place this week.”

Previously, he said the city hopes to have the restaurant and bait shop open in late 2020 or early 2021.

The new tenant or the city will complete the buildout of those areas.

The city commission voted in May to approve the bid from the Ugly Grouper restaurant, 5704 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, and the mayor is in negotiations with the restaurant owners, while the city attorney attempts to settle with the former tenant, Mario Schoenfelder, whose lease ends Dec. 15.

Schoenfelder’s lease payments were abated when the pier closed in 2017.

“I’m proud that the city has finally gotten the pier substantially finished,” Seymour said. “It’s just about ready for the public to go out and enjoy the No. 1 tourist destination in Manatee County.”