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Are Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach back in business? What’s open and what needs to happen

Miami Herald 12/1/2022 Howard Cohen, Miami Herald
The Matlacha bridge to Pine Island as it’s being repaired on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. Hurricane Ian significantly damaged the roadway leading to the bridge, preventing thousands of residents from Pine Island in Southwest Florida from returning to their homes after they evacuated before the powerful storm hit the area on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that the bridge had been temporarily repaired. © Al Diaz/ Herald/TNS The Matlacha bridge to Pine Island as it’s being repaired on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. Hurricane Ian significantly damaged the roadway leading to the bridge, preventing thousands of residents from Pine Island in Southwest Florida from returning to their homes after they evacuated before the powerful storm hit the area on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that the bridge had been temporarily repaired.

Two months after Hurricane Ian shattered homes and businesses in Southwest Florida, some tourist magnets in Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers Beach are back or about to return.

For others, it will be a much longer journey.

For all, it’s not simply a matter of sweep up and turn the sign in the window from Closed to Open. But it’s a start.

Even with that start, checkpoints limit visitors on the broken islands. So if you are planning to sightsee, get some dinner and watch the sun go down, you’ll need patience. The islands aren’t yet open for visitors.

First starters

Among the first starters, Jerry’s Foods, a grocery store that first opened in 1983, reopened with a soft launch on Oct. 25. The grocer was able to reopen quickly because the store was elevated more than 15 feet above ground level and Ian’s 155 mph winds and tidal surge did not quite flood the market inside. But there was damage inside and out.

“A huge first step towards island recovery and we couldn’t be more excited,” representatives from the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce posted upon the soft reopening.

Since then, Jerry’s began selling a small assortment of hardware-related items including saws, shovels, hand tools, air filters and other goods to assist homeowners and rescue crews in recovery efforts in early November.

By Nov. 22, Jerry’s was taking reservations for its cafe to serve $12.99 Thanksgiving dinners or $9.99 take-home traditional turkey dinners.

“I literally thought it would be nine months to a year before we’d have the opportunity to open up for business again,” Jerry’s General Manager Rick Winningham told Gulfshore Business.

Sanibel & Captiva Chamber of Commerce President John Lai told Gulfshore that the reopening was a “huge” morale booster to weary residents and a major step toward resuming a “sense of normalcy.”

Jerry’s isn’t alone.

▪ On Tuesday, city officials announced that the Sanibel Recreation Center reopened with free but limited amenities to the community and will operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

On select Saturdays — Dec. 3, 10 and 17 — children in grades K-8 can be dropped off for a Saturday Fun Day program that includes arts and crafts and games from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Adults can also take part in Tuesday and Thursday yoga classes and use the recreation center’s weight room.

▪ Traders Restaurant on Sanibel was able to reopen in time for Thanksgiving.

“There are no words for the atmosphere you all have created the last two days. We had familiar faces five minutes early the first day, and back to back incredible nights since. A lot of people said we were opening to nobody and we didn’t need to rush, lucky for us that was not the case,” owners posted on Facebook on Black Friday.

▪ The Sanibel Grill had a soft opening on Sunday and began its regular opening schedule on Dec. 1. The Sanibel Grill will be open from noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, general manager Julie Grzeszak told the Miami Herald. The soft opening went well, she said.

“The islands are still closed to residents only but there’s enough workers and residents that are actually still here so it’ll be lucrative business for us,” Grzeszak said.

Timbers Restaurant & Fish Market and Sanibel Grill is a 44-year-old combined eatery that sits about 10 feet above ground, so it survived the basketball player-high surge along Sanibel streets but suffered roof damage.

Though the Sanibel Grill was able to reopen with a “pretty big limited menu and full bar and beer and all that type of stuff,” Grzeszak said, Timbers owner Matt Asen anticipates that portion’s reopening, too, he told WINK News. It can’t come soon enough. Checkpoints still limit cars that can enter Sanibel and Captiva islands.

“Last year, we would do 1,000 meals between the Timbers and the Sanibel Grill on Thanksgiving Day because we open early. And this year, we did zero,” Asen told WINK.

▪ Bayfront Bistro on Fort Myers Beach was the first business to reopen on the island after Ian with a grand opening on Nov. 11, WINK reported. Co-owner Bob Rommell, who pointed at a water line that reached nearly nine feet on the bistro’s walls, told WINK, “Honestly, we didn’t know if we’d ever really open again.”

The owners have a sense of humor. On a wall with fresh paint, the water line is marked with a sign that reads “Hurricane Ian was here. 9/28/22.”

Tunaskin was reportedly “the first official clothing store to open since the hurricane” in Fort Myers Beach despite the storm decimating the building and washing its inventory nearly two miles away, Fox 4 reported. Since the building is a loss, Tunaskin is operating as a pop-up trailer in the parking lot.

“I was so excited when I drove by and saw they were open,” customer Susan Anderson told the station. “I pulled right in and said I need some shirts.”

▪ Gasparilla Island State Park reopened in Lee County but that’s the only beach to do so there. All other beaches as well as access to them are closed “until further notice as we continue to work diligently to remove storm debris and make these areas safe,” the county said, the Fort Myers News-Press reported on Nov. 25.

▪ In Naples, 10 Collier County beaches are open, including on 1977 Gulf Shore Blvd. and Central Avenue and, on Marco Island, Tigertail Beach and South Marco Beach. But Delnore Wiggins Pass State Park has not reopened in Collier.

More time still needed

But many popular attractions, like The Mucky Duck on Captiva, are still not ready to open for business.

A month after the hurricane Mucky Duck owners posted on Facebook that the restaurant weathered the storm surge well because layers of sand kept water from engulfing the inside serving areas and kitchen. But more work on the island and location needs to be done before regular operations can resume.

“While I fully expect some businesses that have newer facilities and experienced less damage to be up and operational by the start of season, those resorts with older facilities that were in the most heavily impacted areas will certainly take longer to repair and some may have to be torn down and completely rebuilt,” H. Shelton Weeks, a professor of real estate at the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University, told the Miami Herald.

To help businesses and residents get to that point, temporary repair work was completed on heavily damaged causeways leading onto the island chain in October.

READ MORE: How did Sanibel Causeway open early? 4,000 tons of asphalt and an ‘ambitious road map’

Businesses and beaches in Southwest Florida are fuel for the region’s tourism industry, Weeks said. “It is a huge part of their economies and definitely a primary driver.”

Reopening process

On Nov. 28, the city of Sanibel made the process of reopening brick-and-mortar businesses — those that could, of course — a bit easier. But there are a handful of steps that must be completed when seeking authorization for employees to access the islands.

Among them, a Sanibel or Captiva business has to submit to Sanibel’s deputy city manager the intended reopening date and a list of the employees that need access to the island. The list must include the employee’s name, the employee’s address, and the employee’s title.

Approved employees won’t need a hurricane reentry pass but their names will be on a cloud-based database police can access at the causeway checkpoint, where people will need to show a valid driver’s license and provide the name of the employer, WINK reported.

Lessons learned

“Government officials learned many lessons following Hurricane Irma in 2017 and they were able to use this knowledge to improve our response to Hurricane Ian,” Michael Collins, an associate professor of resort and hospitality management for Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University near Fort Myers, told the Miami Herald in October.

“Public officials fully recognize the importance of tourism to Southwest Florida. Tourism is critically important to Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers Beach, as well as all of Southwest Florida,” Collins said.

“The peak tourism season runs from the Christmas holidays through April. Hospitality businesses, including hotels and resorts, are highly motivated to open within the next 60 to 90 days,” Collins said, noting that many hotels are operating, but given the limited access until roadways are open to tourists, most rooms are occupied by workers involved in the cleanup process and displaced residents.

Beaches are also a primary draw to Southwest Florida.

In pre-Ian times, “Beach visitors fill many hotel rooms and Lee County collects over $65 million in lodging taxes, while Collier County collects over $35 million,” Collins said. “A large portion of these tax revenues are used to maintain and renourish our beaches. Consequently, county officials in Southwest Florida will open beaches as soon as access can be restored and it is safe to provide public access. I anticipate that this will occur by year’s end, prior to our peak season in the first quarter of 2023.”

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