A car stops at the checkpoint at MM 112.5 to provide documentation to the sheriff’s deputy. Effective June 1, the two checkpoints in Key Largo will end. WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

By Jim McCarthy, Sara Matthis and Mandy Miles

Gov. Ron DeSantis characterized Florida’s next reopening step as a “full phase one” during a May 15 press conference in Jacksonville. On May 18, DeSantis announced that restaurants and retail stores could increase capacities, while gyms, libraries and museums received the green light to welcome back the public.

DeSantis’ initial reopening on May 4 was called a “baby step” with restaurants reopening outdoor dining with tables 6 feet apart and dine-in at 25%. Retailers were also able to flip their closed signs, so long as they maintained 25% capacity. On May 18, DeSantis moved restaurants to a 50% dine-in capacity.

“I really appreciate all the folks who own restaurants who’ve been thinking deeply about this,” he said. “A lot stayed open to do takeout, but some didn’t as some are more conducive to dining. I think that’s something a lot of people in the restaurant business were hoping for. I think it can be done safely.”

Retail shops are also getting the green light to move to 50% capacity. DeSantis said there’s clear guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure everyone is staying safe. 

Those wanting to get back to the weights or the treadmill are now able to, as DeSantis gave the go-ahead for gyms and fitness centers to open up, so long as they follow CDC and OSHA guidelines and people are social distancing and sanitizing machines. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks about the next phase in reopening during a Friday press conference in Jacksonville. CONTRIBUTED

“The CDC was really about to close the gyms. I tried to work instructively, but if you think about it, this is a respiratory virus that tends to attack people with health problems or who are not in good physical condition,” he said. “Don’t we want people to be getting exercise and don’t we want people to stay in shape? It’s going to actually make them more resistant to severe consequences, so I think this is good and important.” 

Libraries were able to go to 50% capacity on May 18, per DeSantis, but that will ultimately be a call for local governments. Museums will also be able to open at 50% capacity. 

As for summer camps, DeSantis said, “we need to move forward with that.” Depriving kids of summer activities would be a mistake, he said. 

“It’s high on my agenda,” DeSantis said. 

Bars and theaters remain closed under DeSantis’ reopening plan.

MONROE COUNTY PREPARES

Less than two weeks remain before checkpoints come down and visitors return to hotels, parks and tourist spots up and down the islands. Officials are reminding the public to protect their health through social distancing and other safeguarding measures. 

In Key West, the iconic Southernmost Point monument has been uncovered and open for photo ops for the past two weeks, while local tour operators, restaurants, museums and other attractions prepare to welcome back visitors. FILE PHOTO

Leaders throughout the islands convened for a May 18 meeting led by the county Emergency Operations Center and Shannon Weiner, emergency management director. A day before, the county announced that it would be ending the checkpoints on Card Sound Road and MM 112.5 in Key Largo effective June 1. 

Lodging establishments will be able to welcome back guests at 50% capacity, the county said on May 17. 

Vacation rentals could open pending the county’s written request to the state and approval. Counties desiring to reopen vacation rentals will need to submit their plan to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation secretary for approval.

Airport screenings and bus restrictions would also be lifted beginning June 1. 

Mayor Heather Carruthers said the county continues to coordinate with Miami-Dade and Broward county leaders as those areas begin to open up business to locals. Carruthers acknowledged that the county has been successful in its control of cases, and it’s highly attributable to the checkpoint. 

“Clearly, there’s a lot of pressure for things to start moving again as our economy is starting to falter,” she said. “We feel like this is the time to do this prudently, but we’ll have a lot of new processes in place for hotels and transient rentals.”

As visitors come back to the islands, Carruthers said the public should “not let down their guard” and maintain protective measures.

Positive cases stood at 99 as of May 20. Five new cases were reported to the Florida Health Department last weekend, and Bob Eadie, health officer for Monroe County, attributed the jump to results that came back from tests conducted at Crystal Health & Rehab Center last Friday. Eadie said the tests were conducted on people whose results had been inconclusive when they were tested the first time. 

The state’s latest report shows 15 positive residents and six staff members at the long-term care facility. 

The health department isn’t tracking active cases currently, but a sign of encouraging news, per Eadie, is that there no hospitalizations seen at local hospitals in recent weeks. No in-house patients with COVID-19 have been seen at Mariners Hospital in 13 days, officials said on May 18, while Lower Keys Medical Center said it doesn’t have anyone in-house or under investigation. Hospital officials say they’re ready should the county experience any surges when a reopening commences. 

Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters will have a soft opening for locals on Monday, May 25, before opening to the general public in June. FILE PHOTO

Antibody testing from the health department is also showing encouraging signs with none deemed positive, besides a reconfirmation of those known to be positive before, Eadie said. 

“It seems we have the virus in check in Monroe County,” he said. “Obviously, our concern will be the influx of individuals from outside Monroe County, but we can’t live in a bubble forever.”

Eadie said the message of “protect your own health” is now more important than ever. Social distancing, hand washing and staying home if ill are among the measures Eadie highlighted. 

“It’s not just individuals at risk, but the community can be at risk,” Eadie said. “We’re entering a new phase but we’re as prepared as we can be.”

The county EOC for the past two weeks has slowly transitioned staff back to their full-time positions, Weiner said. That will continue in the weeks ahead. 

RESORTS, TOURIST ATTRACTIONS GEAR UP

In Key West, the iconic Southernmost Point monument has been uncovered and open for photo ops for the past two weeks, while local tour operators, restaurants, museums and other attractions prepare to welcome back visitors. Throughout the city, employees at various businesses have been cleaning, painting and otherwise preparing for a different way of doing things.

At their meeting on May 19, Key West city commissioners heard presentations from three local doctors about their vision for reopening the island safely while preparing for a potential influx of coronavirus cases from out-of-town visitors.

Doctors Bruce Boros, Jack Norris and Mark Whiteside each emphasized during their five-minute presentations the importance of widespread testing, temperature checks and contact tracing to protect people from asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

Key West hoteliers and guest house owners are preparing their properties for what many are calling “the new normal.”

Michael Knowles, general manager of the Doubletree Grand Key Resort, has said, “Preparing for the new normal requires a delicate dance between guest expectations and government guidance to provide a safe environment.”

Meanwhile, Sam Holland, whose family has long owned the Conch House Inn, acknowledged that the entire concept of the bed and breakfast is about to change and Holland is leading the charge “to rebrand the high-touch experience in the era of low-touch requirements,” said Key West Chamber of Commerce executive director Scott Atwell.

The city of Key West government has amended its emergency orders to align with those of the governor. Businesses are required to have procedures in place for employees to sanitize frequent touch points throughout the day. It also requires temperature screenings and evaluations of employees as well as alcohol-based hand sanitizers for use by customers and employees, the city directive states.

Restaurants must monitor entrances and exits to ensure they do not exceed the 50% occupancy load.  Bar seating and self-serve food stations, such as salad bars, remain closed.

“Restaurants must remove all unnecessary, frequently touched items like service menus. Disposable menus are encouraged and must be thrown away or recycled after each use. Menus can be displayed if they cannot be handled by the customers,” the latest Key West regulations state. 

June 1 was the date many were anticipating for a Keys reopening, and Islamorada Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Judy Hill said local hotels and service-related businesses are now gathering staff and putting a plan in place to keep guests and employees safe. Hull said resorts and hotels are following guidelines of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. 

“I’m so pleased they have two weeks to be working on this,” Hull said. “Safety has to be our major concern. The virus didn’t go away and we have to live safely. We can do this, but we cannot forget that the virus didn’t vanish.”

A dolphin buddy swim at Theater of the Sea in Islamorada. CONTRIBUTED

Theater of the Sea, located at MM 84.7 in Islamorada, will open its dolphin, sea turtle, shark and other animal interaction programs beginning June 1. Rachel Moss, assistant curator, said interactions will be kept to one family/friend group per program. Space is limited and visitors are urged to call or book online. 

In Key Largo, Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder is taking steps to ensure that staff, guests and dolphins are staying safe as they get set to open. Nancy Cooper, president and director of training at DPMMR, said animal care staff has been at the property throughout the pandemic taking care of the dolphins. Guest services staff are now coming back to conduct some upkeep around the facility. 

“We will have mandatory masks, obviously, that must be worn by trainers and guests. My trainers are wearing them full-time and so will guest services,” Cooper said. “We will have thermometers as guests come in to make sure nobody has a temperature above 99 (degrees). We will stagger our groups to come in and swim with dolphins so people are not congregating in the gift shop. Our facility is outdoors, so we don’t have to worry about being inside.”

“We’re appreciative that we have a two-week window to prepare, get our staff back and adjust to the new normal,” said Daniel Samess, CEO of the Marathon Chamber of Commerce. “The 50% capacity for restaurants is a bit more palatable for some restaurateurs.”

Still, Sunset Grille and Raw Bar in Marathon won’t open just yet. Owner John Kotch said it will be a “calculated opening,” adding that it still doesn’t make sense for the restaurant he owns, one of the largest in the Middle Keys, to start serving.

Dolphin Research Center is preparing to open on June 1. Next week, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters will have a soft opening for locals on Monday, May 25, before opening to the general public in June. 

City of Marathon officials are somewhat wary of the June 1 reopen date. “As to the beaches, it’s my guess that we could be overrun from counties to our north. The only thing we can do at that point is behave prudently and maybe follow what our neighbors in Lee County (Naples) did, which is to close the beaches again,” said Marathon Mayor Steve Cook. “I don’t think there is one right answer. But I do see that the (COVID19 case) numbers are not going crazy in Georgia because the state reopened. Reopening can actually be good for Keys folks that are so financially hurt at this point.”

Marathon City Manager Chuck Lindsey said he’s proud of how residents have responded to the epidemic.

“Regardless of when the Keys open, we will be faced with challenges and Marathon is prepared to react to each of them with appropriate, measured responses,” Lindsey said. 

 

Join Our Blast – Keys News Right to Your INBOX