Monroe County commissioners gather for a special meeting on Thursday, June 4. MONROE COUNTY/Contributed

Mandating masks upon entry inside restaurants, retail stores and other establishments will be up to Keys business owners to decide. While a majority of Monroe County commissioners decided against an ordinance requiring facial coverings inside business establishments during a June 4 special meeting, they are urging owners and the public to take protective measures as the pandemic continues and visitors are welcomed back to the island chain. 

In early April, Monroe County emergency directive 20-05 required all employees and customers of grocery stores, pharmacies and food distribution points to wear covering over the mouth and nose at all times. That’s no longer in effect. 

Many shops and stores in the Keys took initiative when they reopened their doors by requiring people to wear masks upon entry. It’s only a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control or the state of Florida, which led to a proposed county ordinance outlining a requirement that masks be worn inside any business establishment.

Monroe County commissioners voted 3-2 against the proposed county ordinance, but it will come back up for discussion at the regular meeting set for June 17.  

As drafted, the proposal would recommend that everyone carry a mask when away from home and wear it in instances when they’re closer than 6 feet to another person they don’t live with. 

The Centers for Disease Control currently recommends the public wear face coverings when leaving their homes, regardless of whether they have a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19. The CDC states it’s because of evidence that people with COVID-19 can spread it, even when they don’t show any symptoms. 

Those entering inside a business establishment would be required to wear a face covering, under the proposed county ordinance. Several exceptions are made, however, that give diners the ability to take off their masks once they’re seated at a table to eat and drink. Many restaurants currently require covering upon entry, but patrons can take them off once they’re at a table.

As some gyms have already enacted, people would be able to take off his/her mask once they begin their workout, so long as they’re 6 feet away from others. 

Barbershop and beauty salon patrons would also be exempt from wearing facial coverings inside if it interfered with services, while hotel and lodging guests would be able to unmask once they’re in their rooms or units. Employees and managers in areas of business not open to the public wouldn’t have to wear a mask. 

Kitchen and food preparers would still be required to have facial covering. Most currently follow this practice. 

The proposed ordinance has teeth, as those who disobey mask requirements would face potential punishment in the way of a fine or arrest. 

While three county commissioners voted against the ordinance, they strongly recommended wearing masks in public, especially with visitors starting to come into the Keys. Commissioner Michelle Coldiron said the county should stay within the umbrella of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s also recommending facial coverings, but not requiring it. 

Florida enters a phase two reopening on June 5 as DeSantis announced on June 3 that bars and movie theaters could open at 50% capacity indoors. In addition, retail shops and restaurants are able to move to full capacity.

Phase two excludes the three counties to the north of Monroe, which have been the hot spot in the state since the outbreak. Of the new cases reported daily by the Florida Health Department, around half continue to originate from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. 

In talks with local chambers of commerce and mayors, Coldiron told commissioners that businesses and municipalities want to make their own decisions.

“If they make it for their business and require it, they’ll have the teeth they need if they need to call the sheriff to say I want to trespass someone for not following the rules of my establishment,” Coldiron said. “I’m going to wear my mask because I understand that it’s what the CDC guidelines outline, but I think each individual business can establish that rule, and then their patrons will either come in because they feel safe to go inside that establishment because they’re wearing a mask. Or, if they don’t feel it’s necessary to wear a mask, they’ll go to those businesses that don’t require them to wear a mask.”  

Mayor Heather Carruthers, who supported an ordinance, said the governor didn’t require the wearing of masks as “not every county in the state is a tourism county.” And not every county welcomes people from all over, she said. 

“There are some counties that have no cases at all, so there’s no way that he could make it a requirement,” she said. “My concern is not so much with our locals. My concern is with people from someplace else. Us not having the teeth to say, look, please protect people who live here and work in this establishment…”

While expressing support for an ordinance, Carruthers said she’s not completely happy with the proposal in current form, as certain aspects are “too onerous.” 

Commissioners say they’ll be monitoring the situation in the weeks leading to their scheduled June 17 meeting to determine whether a mandatory requirement should be in place.  Commissioner David Rice, who voted against the ordinance, said he’d much rather see people doing the right thing to protect their community on a voluntary basis. 

“I’m willing to go with that for a short period of time. If circumstances and information indicate that’s not happening, I have no problem revisiting this issue,” he said. 

Commissioner Craig Cates, too, believed that it should be voluntary. 

“If it turns out to be a problem, then we pass an ordinance, he said. 

In her support alongside Carruthers for an ordinance, Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said wearing masks shows care for fellow community members. 

“It tells the world around you what you think of your neighbors, friends and community workers,” she said.

June 1 marked the end of checkpoints in Key Largo that turned away nearly 20,000 motorists who didn’t live in the Keys or had no business locally. The posts, ordered at the direction of county officials, were in place for two-and-a-half months to mitigate a spread of the coronavirus.

A new positive COVID-19 case out of Tavernier was reported on June 4, bringing the total count in Monroe County to 110. Bob Eadie, health officer for Monroe County, told commissioners during a briefing that the latest case came as a result of contact with individuals from Miami-Dade County. 

“(Most of) our cases have been either European in its origin or it’s probably from Dade County based on everything we’ve seen,” Eadie said. “We have to remain vigilant and ready.”

Miami-Dade beaches and bars remain closed, and officials acknowledged that it’ll likely lead to more visitors from that area. If there’s any time that masks should be mandatory, Carruthers said, it should be now. 

“We’re at the doorstep of an area that has the most cases in Florida, and an area that’s going to be encouraged more and more to visit here,” she said. 

Local municipalities have authority to enact their own protective measures and ordinances.


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