Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett said Monday he took a tour of the boat ramp at Frank Pate Park over the weekend.
He counted an average of 60 boat trailers and vehicles per day, Buzzett added, and most of those bore license tags from beyond Florida.
And, Buzzett noted, there are hot spots for the coronavirus in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, states from which many of the tourists and visitors to the county come.
“We are lucky,” Buzzett said Monday during an emergency meeting of the Port St. Joe City Commission.
“If you look at the map, it is all around us. It is coming.”
Heeding recommendations from the federal and state levels, Buzzett continued, city officials should be establishing an example for social distancing and consider closing the only boat ramp over which the city has jurisdiction.
Last week, the Board of County Commissioners closed all beaches until at least April 9.
After an hour of discussion Monday, city commissioners unanimously voted to close the boat ramp for two weeks effective the end of business that day.
“We are being socially responsible,” Buzzett said Mayor Rex Buzzett.
“I don’t want to close it but if you can’t give up a couple of fishing trips out of the year in order to protect the general public, you are being a little bit selfish, I think.”
For Commissioner Eric Langston, the coronavirus pandemic is particularly personal, with a daughter suffering from asthma.
He raised the issue, which was entertained for a time, of instituting a curfew to ensure residents were practicing social distancing.
“It is important for us to stay at home and social distance,” Langston said. “I think we need to close the boat ramp down for a couple of weeks and see what happens.
“Sometimes you have to make sacrifices … to protect our people.”
Commissioner Brett Lowry said he arrived at the meeting prepared to examine ways to carve out an exemption for residents, saying he would hope to find a way to allow locals to use the ramp.
Commissioner Scott Hoffman was of similar mind.
Mark Howze, a resident and charter captain, said for most captains the next few weeks have already brought nothing more than cancellations, so from a business standpoint, closing the boat ramp might not have significant impact.
But, Howze said, locals should be allowed to use the ramp for recreational purposes as the country is in a virtual lockdown, and if closing the boat ramp, why not the pickleball courts at Frank Pate Park or the tennis courts at Lamar Faison Fields.
Other factors weighed, however, at least for Lowry and Hoffman.
City attorney Clint McCahill said it would be difficult to enact an ordinance that would exclude some but not others from using a public facility such as the boat ramp.
Several commissioners noted that Fish ‘N Express and the St. Vincent Island Shuttle have already temporarily ceased operations due to the pandemic.
Commissioner David Ashbrook said the city should be taking “aggressive steps” to protect citizens.
“I support the idea of stopping visitors and tourists from visiting the county,” Hoffman said. “We need to focus on making good choices.”
Hoffman added that during these days of COVID-19, nobody is an individual but a walking product of who they have been in contact with and he said any thoughts he had of an exemption for locals had been thoroughly discounted.
Commissioners also reiterated to Chief Matt Herring that the closure of county beaches included the beach at George Core Park.
In addition, the city side under the Highland View Bridge will be closed, per commissioners.
Herring and his officers will also seek to disperse groups of 10 or more people out on the streets; Lowry said officers could truthfully say city officials were considering a curfew to encourage social distancing.
Commissioners expressed the hope that the BOCC would follow suit and close boat ramps at White City and Indian Pass.
Commissioners voted unanimously to cease utility cut-offs through at least the end of April.
City Manager Jim Anderson said the city had not been cutting people off from their water the past couple of weeks as the pandemic worsened.
In addition, commissioners agreed to waive late fees and reconnect fees for the next 30 days.
Meeting by teleconference
With more details to be released later this week, the city will use the video/teleconferencing platform Zoom for Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting.
That will allow commissioners to meet by remote and residents who wish to participate will be able through a moderator, using the Zoom app on a mobile phone or other device with internet access.
The meeting will originate from City Hall as it has the technology in place; an item on the agenda will likely be the costs of installing wireless in the Ward Ridge meeting room.