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here’s a spark of concern among Keys leaders over recent COVID-19 numbers, which show more than 50 new cases reported locally over the weekend. 

A countywide call among municipalities, health officials and emergency personnel on Oct. 19 assessed the current state of the pandemic that brought 91 new cases since Oct. 16. A majority of the cases, 57, come from Key West. More than 200 new cases have been reported in the past 14 days. 

The Florida Department of Health in Monroe County reported the 25th COVID-19-related death in the county on Oct. 19 involving a 90-year-old female with underlying health conditions. 

Bob Eadie, health officer for Monroe County, said the latest reports show that numbers are “not going the way we want.” Eadie told leaders that new cases are developing out of clusters, and actions need to be taken to protect the public. 

Earlier in the month, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order that moved Florida into a phase 3 reopening. Restaurants were given the ability to return to full capacity indoors. Municipalities restricting restaurant capacities further than 50% would need to provide justification to the state in terms of the need for public health and economic impacts involved.

In addition, DeSantis’ order removed fines and penalties against those who violated mask ordinances or social distancing guidelines during the pandemic. A mask mandate remains, however, upon entering a business or restaurant in Monroe County. 

County Administrator Roman Gastesi kicked off the call by using a football reference and asking Eadie if the county was “at halftime or not” with the coronavirus pandemic. Eadie responded by stating that “we are about two minutes away from the two-minute warning for the first half.”

“Right now, I think the clock has stopped because we’re under review to figure out exactly where we stand,” he said. “There’s an increase in the county, there’s an increase in the state and there’s an increase in the country. That will start to trickle down even more. It’s cold up north. More people will start to be coming this way. We need to be as prepared for it as we can. 

“I don’t think we’ll be back in any lockdown or anything like that,” Eadie continued. “But it’s numbers that keep going up, and we did a good job the first time around. I think we’re going to have a second time around and I hope we do just as well with it as we did before.”

Eadie said the health department is “swamped” due to current staffing levels and the state pulling resources.

“We’re scrambling to find contact tracers. We’ve got over 100 contacts we’re trying to keep up with right now,” he said. “We are a long way from being back to completely normal.”

The state sent a mobile testing lab to the Keys, where it was stationed on Stock Island on Oct. 18 and Key Largo on Oct. 19. Ninety-six people were tested the first day and 76 were tested Sunday, according to health officials. 

Of the new cases reported, Eadie said the majority are “seemingly young people,” from those in the service industry to local schools. The new Monroe County School District COVID-19 dashboard on Oct. 19 reported 14 positive cases among students, as well as one teacher and two staff members since the initial return to school. Gerald Adams and Stanley Switlik elementary schools each reported two cases among students. Coral Shores High School reported four cases while and Marathon High School reported two cases. Sigsbee Charter School confirmed that a student and teacher tested positive. 

Hospitalizations at Baptist Health’s Mariners and Fishermen’s hospitals as of Oct. 20 were two. While Lower Keys Medical Center reported five COVID-19 hospitalizations, Chief Executive Officer David Clay said they’re green on supplies, staffing and capacity, meaning they’re in good shape.

Eadie recommended Keys leaders resume meetings to a virtual setting to send a message that the pandemic is ongoing. The board of county commissioners reverted the Oct. 21 to a virtual after it was originally scheduled to be in a hybrid format. 

The City of Key West followed suit and announced that the Oct. 20 Key West city commission meeting would be virtual.

“We would recommend other elected bodies do the same to reiterate to the public that we’re not out of this yet, clearly,” Carruthers said. 

Key Colony Beach Mayor John DeNeale asked Eadie if they should be limiting group sizes again, with snowbirds coming back soon and local clubs seeing bigger gatherings. Eadie acknowledged that such a decision could be made next month. 

“Anytime you get a group bigger than 10, you’re asking for issues,” he said. “Even some of that 10 can be iffy because if you’re not taking those precautions and wearing masks and socially distancing, you’re just leaving yourself open for spreading the disease.”

Carruthers asked County Attorney Bob Shillinger if the county has been preempted from the ability to limit group sizes. 

“You have a limited ability to impose sanctions because the governor has limited your ability to collect fines against individuals,” he said. “I suppose you could put capacity limits, but there’s some areas where you can’t because he’s laid out some specific steps on what you would need to do for restaurants. You’d have to qualify the economic impact of limitation and explain why it’s necessary for public health. (It’s) more difficult than just setting a number is what I’m trying to say.” 

Statewide, 756,727 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 since the initial outbreak. Just over 5.7 million Florida residents have been tested with around 4.9 million coming back negative. 

Eadie in his report to leaders quoted an ad. 

“Wear the damn mask,” he said. 

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