Key West city commissioners on Tuesday evening were on the verge of passing four separate exceptions to the city’s mandatory mask rules after hearing from local gym and yoga studio owners, wedding photographers and entertainers.

But having heard earlier in the meeting from local medical professionals about the continued, unchecked spread of COVID-19 in Key West, the commission backed away from some of the exceptions, calling instead for common sense enforcement and responsible behavior.

“There’s nothing on that graph tonight that says to me we should be making exceptions to our mask requirements,” Commissioner Greg Davila said, echoing Mayor Teri Johnston’s firm position against exceptions.

“I’d be more eager to make exceptions if we had compliance now,” Johnston said. “We have people asking us to let them live their lives as if it’s normal times, and we’re not living in normal times.”

The commission did ultimately pass mask exceptions for brides and grooms while having their photos taken at their wedding ceremony, for performers who are separated from their audience by plexiglass and at least 10 feet, and for people with chronic health problems. Johnston and Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover opposed the plexiglass performer exception, but it passed.

The chronic health issue can only be used as a defense. After a person is cited for not wearing a mask, if he or she shows proof of such illness to city code or police, the violation could be excused.

An exception to the mask requirement during strenuous fitness activity did not pass, despite support from Vice Mayor Sam Kaufman and Commissioner Billy Wardlow.

The city also strengthened its mask mandate from a city directive enacted by the mayor and city manager to an ordinance passed by the full commission. The ordinance that passed unanimously Tuesday night will last for 60 days, but City Attorney Shawn Smith said he’ll have a fully codified ordinance ready for them at one of the next two meetings so it can be approved with the officially required two public readings.

The switch from a directive to an ordinance could affect the lawsuit that State Rep. Anthony Sabatini filed this week against the city’s mask mandate on behalf of client Joseph Bracciale. But the lack of full commission approval of the directive was only one of Sabatini’s arguments that also claims the mandate is unconstitutional and subject to arbitrary enforcement.

‘Fully loaded with the virus’

Doctors Mark Whiteside, Bruce Boros and John Norris all spoke to the commissioners via Zoom Tuesday night and painted a grim picture of community virus spread. Lower Keys Medical Center CEO David Clay told them the hospital’s staffing is more a concern than physical capacity or supplies.

“So we could have a place to put you if you’re sick, but we may not have anyone to take care of you,” Commissioner Clayton Lopez observed.

“It’s here. We’re fully loaded with the virus,” Boros and Norris said, with Whitehead predicting the Keys would surpass 1,000 cases within the next 24 to 48 hours.

Boros did add a positive point when he mentioned the website trialsite.com, which shows encouraging results for a medicine used to treat ringworm and lice in kids.

“It’s wiping out COVID in a few days, so that’s encouraging,” Boros said. “But as of now, we’re going to keep getting sicker. Our numbers are going to keep going up.”

Assisted-living partnership?

In other commission news, officials gave tentative support to a partnership with the county that would enable Poinciana Gardens assisted-living facility to remain open.

The city could contribute $400,000 a year to its operation. The partnership would move the 16 or so residents of the county-owned Bayshore Manor on College Road to Poinciana Gardens. But the details need to be finalized, Manuel Castillo, head of the Key West Housing Authority, told the commission.

Mom and Pop businesses

Commissioners also heard a presentation by Key West business owners Paul Menta of Key West’s First Legal Rum Distillery, and Mark Gambuzza, owner of Uva wine shop, two of the founders of Key West’s new Mom and Pop small business group. The group includes owners of businesses with 50 or fewer employees who want a voice in the city’s operation and tourism strategies.

 “We have to change and pivot almost monthly changing the way we do business,” Menta said, citing the number of business licenses in the city. “There are 6,000 to 7,000 small business owners who don’t have a voice and we want a voice.”

The group has a new website at momandpopkeywest.com and encourages the city to establish a small business development group.

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