A car stops at the checkpoint at MM 112.5 to provide documentation to the sheriff’s deputy. Effective June 1, the two checkpoints in Key Largo will end. WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

Two weeks are all that remains before checkpoints come down and visitors return to enjoy some time in the Keys. As they get ready to frequent hotels, parks and tourist spots up and down the islands, officials are reminding the public to protect their health through social distancing and other safeguarding measures.

Leaders throughout the islands convened for their normal Monday morning call led by the county Emergency Operations Center and Shannon Weiner, emergency management director. A day before, the county announced that it would be ending the checkpoints on Card Sound Road and MM 112.5 in Key Largo effective June 1. 

Lodging establishments will be able to welcome back guests at 50% capacity on June 1, while vacation rentals could open pending the county’s written request to the state and approval. Per Gov. Ron DeSantis’ full phase one order, counties desiring to reopen vacation rentals will need to submit their plan to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation secretary for approval.

Airport screenings and bus restrictions would also be lifted beginning June 1. 

Mayor Heather Carruthers said the county continues to coordinate with Miami-Dade and Broward county leaders as those areas begin to open up business to locals. Carruthers acknowledged that the county has been successful in its control of cases, and it’s highly attributable to the checkpoint. 

“Clearly, there’s a lot of pressure for things to start moving again as our economy is starting to falter,” she said. “We feel like this is the time to do this prudently, but we’ll have a lot of new processes in place for hotels and transient rentals.”

As visitors come back to the islands, Carruthers said the public should “not let down their guard” and maintain protective measures.

Positive cases reached 100 over the weekend with five new cases reported to the Florida Health Department. Bob Eadie, health officer for Monroe County, attributed the jump to test results that came back from Crystal Health & Rehab Center conducted last Friday. Eadie said the tests were conducted on people who had been inconclusive when they were tested the first time. 

“We will conduct another round of testing for that facility this week, or the Agency for Health Care Administration will,” he said. 

The state’s latest report shows 11 positive residents and five staff members inside the long-term care facility. 

The health department isn’t tracking active cases currently, but a sign of encouraging news, per Eadie, are no hospitalizations seen at local hospitals in recent weeks. No inhouse patients with COVID-19 have been seen at Mariner’s Hospital in 13 days, while Lower Keys Medical Center said it doesn’t have anyone inhouse or under investigation. Hospital officials say they’re ready should the county experience any surges when a reopening commences. 

Antibody testing from the health department is also showing encouraging signs with none deemed positive, besides a reconfirmation of those known positive before, Eadie said. 

“Over 200 tests have been conducted now,” he said. “It seems we have the virus in check in Monroe County. Obviously, our concern will be the influx of individuals from outside Monroe County, but we can’t live in a bubble forever.”

Eadie said the message of “protect your own health” is now more important than ever. Social distancing, hand washing and staying home if ill are among the measures Eadie highlighted. 

“It’s not just individuals at risk, but the community can be at risk,” Eadie said. “We’re entering a new phase but we’re as prepared as we can be.”

The county EOC for the past two weeks has slowly transitioned staff back to their full-time positions, Weiner said. That will continue in the weeks ahead. 

The emergency management team will continue to support screening operations at the airports and at the checkpoints until June 1. After that, Weiner said they’ll continue to support and supply personal protective equipment to the county’s front line workers and first responders.

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