Hold onto your masks. 

At the June 17 BOCC meeting, the county commissioners voted unanimously to approve a county ordinance requiring masks and other similar face coverings at “business establishments” until June 1, 2021. 

There are rules and exceptions, of course, but the goal, according to County Attorney Bob Shillinger, was to create an ordinance with “brightline,” clear rules and actual enforceability. 

“We want an easily definable law so law enforcement or code enforcement officers can say, ‘Okay, A, B and C happened, so you get a ticket,” he said.

The lengthy discussion began with a recap of the latest health statistics in Monroe County, where COVID-19 cases have been on the rise since the Keys removed checkpoints on June 1. At the time of writing, the Keys had seen 137 positive cases.

“Two weeks ago, the board wanted to do an experiment with voluntary compliance,” Shillinger added. 

“Yeah, and we saw how that worked out,” Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said. 

Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers noted that the weekly percent of positive cases in Dade County is 9.4%, whereas Monroe sits at 3.1%. 

“We’re on their doorstep,” she said. “Our positive percent rate is 3.1%, and we don’t want to get close to 9%.” 

The mayor expressed concern about images of crowds on Duval Street in Key West and of upcoming Fourth of July celebrations. Bob Eadie, health officer for Monroe County, agreed, saying, “On Duval Street, not only are people not wearing masks, they’re not even carrying masks. They’re obviously going somewhere… so I don’t think voluntarily requesting someone to do something has worked.”

Eadie noted that the case count numbers are “going the wrong way, not only in Monroe County, but in the state and nationally.” 

 “We need to be very, very cautious in what we do, and, not to be redundant, masks and face coverings are the best way to prevent spread,” Eadie said. 

After hours of back and forth, the commissioners agreed to certain recommendations and mandatory requirements surrounding the use of face masks. 

Recommendations in the adopted ordinance include:

• People older than 6 wear masks when outside their place of residence.

• Everyone older than 6 should carry a mask that’s capable of “immediate use” when away from home. Parents would be “responsible” for ensuring kids have masks.

• Business owners and managers establish rules that encourage social distancing, hand washing and other protective measures for customers and employees.

Shillinger noted that these measures were merely recommendations to align with CDC guidelines, “so it’s not like someone will get a ticket for non-compliance.” 

In terms of mandatory requirements, the BOCC ruled that masks will be required within the county at any “business establishment,” defined as a place of business with a roof overhead where the public enters. 

Commissioners noted that this would affect places like Boondocks, Hog’s Breath, tiki huts and restaurants with indoor/outdoor spaces with roofs, but not at places like Dolphin Research Center’s outdoor spaces or for people walking along Duval Street.

The following guidelines and exceptions to the mandatory mask ordinance were also included:

• Countywide implementation, but municipalities can constitutionally opt-out and create their own rule, should they wish.

• Owners, operators, managers or employees of a business or lodging shall ensure every individual in their establishment complies with this section. “The onus will be on them (the owner),” Shillinger noted, “but the idea is that they can point to the county and say ‘There’s this ordinance. I get in trouble if you don’t comply.’ And if the customer doesn’t, the owner can ask them to leave, and if they don’t, it’s trespassing.”

• Visitors shall not be required to wear masks at “lodging establishments” like hotels or vacation rentals if they’ve rented the entire space for themselves.

• Restaurants shall require masks when customers walk in the door. Masks can be removed only while dining and consuming beverages while seated at a table. 

• Gym patrons shall wear masks to enter gym facilities and walk around, but not when engaged in workouts or classes as long as a 6-foot distance is kept from the next closest patron.

• Masks are not required at barber shops or beauty salons if the mask shall reasonably impede receiving the service. 

• Schools serving students under the age of 18 are exempt and can set their own guidelines to keep students and teachers safe.

• Persons at their place of work and not within 6 feet of another person shall not be required to wear a mask, with the exception of kitchens. 

Penalties for non-compliance include civil fines ranging from $500 to $15,000. Both law and code enforcement officers can issue citations and fines for violations. Carruthers pushed for criminal penalties in addition to civil, saying, “The threat of going to jail may carry more weight than a $500 ticket to someone just in town from somewhere else.” Ultimately, the criminal penalty in the draft ordinance was removed by a 3-to-2 vote.

The penalties also include private rights of action. People can bring their own action if they don’t believe that law or code enforcement or government is doing enough, Shillinger explained. The county attorney noted that this is merely a “tool” likely to be used to “level the playing field” between business owners where an owner in compliance feels his business is being hurt and his competitor fails to follow the ordinance. 

The ordinance will be effective immediately upon execution, and will sunset on June 1, 2021. Commissioner Craig Cates suggested Dec. 31, 2020 instead, but Carruthers noted, “Dec. 31 doesn’t get us through the flu season and heavy tourist season. We won’t see all the transmission from all our visitors until after Dec. 31.”

Commissioner Michelle Coldiron noted that the Tourist Development Council (TDC), sheriff’s signs and county signage at airports and bus stops should all change their messaging to alert visitors of the mask requirement. Carruthers mentioned that the county was already working on banners on utility poles up and down the keys urging the use of masks and maintaining other safety protocols. 

“They need to include masks when packing, and we should ask [the TDC] to do some kind of advertising to bring masks,” Coldiron said. 

Director of Airports Richard Strickland chimed in, noting that airlines already require masks, so visitors arriving at county airports will likely already have a mask. And if not, he added, the airport has over 40,000 masks to hand out to any passengers who don’t have one. County Administrator Roman Gastesi also gave the chambers of commerce 1,000 masks to hand out to visitors who don’t have one.

There were no public speakers completely against a mask ordinance, but several requested stricter guidelines that included outdoor spaces. Others requested a shorter timeline.