Just a day after county officials urged caution over a reopening, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council announced on April 21 that officials are beginning to outline a phase-in plan to slowly reopen the Florida Keys. That’ll only happen, however, once COVID-19 cases wane throughout the country, in Florida and locally. 

A timeframe in which the county will see a reduction in cases is unknown, according to Bob Eadie, the county’s health administrator. That means county officials will need hard evidence of no new cases or a steady downward trend in the Keys in the weeks to come, and that could depend on more widespread testing. 

As for the county’s blueprint, the first phase would ease restrictions for Keys residents and open park amenities such as tennis courts. Nonessential businesses would also be allowed to flip their closed signs. The county would then look at easing restrictions on face masks in public, reopening restaurants to onsite dining only and allowing groups or more than 10. Some of these will be based on state restrictions also being removed. 

Prior to visitors returning to the Keys, lodging facilities would have the opportunity to gather their staffing and prepare for reopening. 

Ending the checkpoints at MM 112.5 and on Card Sound Road in Key Largo would be a final phase, reopening the Keys to visitors. As county officials stress, that’s all dependent upon cases in counties just to the north of the Keys, which account for more than half the positive cases statewide, as well as the rest of Florida and other states.

In Miami-Dade, Mayor Carlos Gimenez is currently working on a plan to slowly open parks, marinas and beaches with rules for people while out recreating. He held a town hall via Facebook on the evening of April 20 to gather feedback on reopening the county. 

In an April 20 morning conference call, Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers said the county needs to be a little more careful in terms of reopening.

“Our timetable will be different than theirs (Dade County), and we’re developing our own plan,” Carruthers said.

In a statement on April 21, Carruthers said the Keys’ plan will likely look different than what’s announced by federal and state officials. She also said that Keys municipalities will likely evaluate their own actions, like that taken in Islamorada to reopen the boat ramp to locals only at Plantation Yacht Harbor beginning April 20. 

“We’re such a national and international destination that the disease needs to be controlled nationally and internationally before we go back to no restrictions on movement in the Keys. Everything we’ve done can be undone very quickly and I don’t know where we’d be at that point. It’d be a total disaster and make recovery very difficult.”

— Bob Eadie, Monroe County’s health administrator

 

Another unknown that remains is whether and when more widespread testing might be seen. During the April 20 conference call, Carruthers questioned Eadie over tests, and specifically when more will make their way to the Keys. For the past month, Carruthers said they’ve been hearing that new tests are on the way.

“We’re at this over a month now,” she said. 

Eadie said he was told that they’re being approved. He said he thinks the county will be able to do more testing within a few weeks.

“I’m repeating what I’ve been told from Tallahassee, that tests are on the way,” Eadie said.

Eadie said the testing is two-pronged; one to see who has the disease and the other to see how many people have the antibodies.

At the state level, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the formation of a task force that would arrange a recommendation on how to reopen the state in the short, mid and long term. On April 20, he held his first phone call with the group. Topics up for discussion will include expanding testing, restaurants and bars, agriculture and theme parks. 

“We want to see people back to work for the long haul,” he said. “We want to continue with Florida’s economic development strategy.”

In her remarks during an April 20 press conference, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell said it’s premature for the governor and elected officials to be opening up public spaces, such as that seen at Jacksonville Beach last weekend and what Gimenez is proposing. 

Mucarsel-Powell said there are several measures that must happen before reopening, the first being passage of an interim emergency aid package to help workers and businesses stay afloat.

“This is happening now. We should be able to pass this bill on Wednesday,” she said. 

She also said the federal government must invest in a widespread, rapid testing system that still isn’t in place. She said House and Senate Democrats have a plan to invest some $30 billion for implementation of a comprehensive testing strategy.

“We heard from experts at Harvard who estimate that the U.S. right now only tests about 150,000 people a day. We need to triple that,” she said.

Joining the congresswoman on the call was Dr. John Norris, chief of staff with Lower Keys Medical Center. He, too, warned about opening too early. 

“If you open up the doors suddenly, you risk drowning hospitals and the health care system because you have to know what you’re dealing with and you have to be able to control it,” he said.

At the April 15 BOCC meeting, Eadie cautioned, “We’re such a national and international destination that the disease needs to be controlled nationally and internationally before we go back to no restrictions on movement in the Keys. Everything we’ve done can be undone very quickly and I don’t know where we’d be at that point. It’d be a total disaster and make recovery very difficult.”

Carruthers asked Eadie what markers he’d like to see before beginning discussions about opening up the county, even just within the Keys but keeping the checkpoint in place.

He said, “If I could have my ideal, I’d like to see two weeks with no cases. I don’t know if that’s unrealistic, but it would be a sign we’re on our way for no transmission in the Keys.”

 

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