Vehicular traffic rolls on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway's Jewfish Creek Bridge. Traffic into the Keys will lighten up following a decision by county officials to close its hotels beginning Sunday at 6 p.m. ANDY NEWMAN/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

By: Mandy Miles, Jim McCarthy and Sara Matthis

The Florida Keys and Key West will close all hotels, campgrounds, short-term rentals and other lodging establishments as of Sunday, Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers announced late Thursday. “Obviously this decision was not taken lightly, but it was made in light of the increases in COVID-19 cases in South Florida, and we’re at the doorstep of South Florida,” Carruthers said.

When asked about potential roadblocks, checkpoints or other vehicular traffic controls coming into the Keys, Gastesi said nothing is off the table, but currently there are no plans for such measures.

The Keyswide hotel closure, announced during a Thursday evening, March 19 virtual press conference, will apply to all 16,500 hotel rooms and other lodging units throughout the island chain that houses approximately 5,000 lodging establishments. The closure includes Key West, Marathon and other cities in Monroe County.

Anyone in the midst of a monthly or multi-month rental in the Keys will be allowed to finish out their stay, county spokeswoman Kristen Livengood said. 

“Protecting our residents is our top priority and we really didn’t see a scenario in which this wouldn’t eventually have to happen,” County Administrator Roman Gastesi said. 

Monroe County restaurants also likely will be limited to takeout and delivery service only, with no on-site dining permitted, Gastesi said, adding that details are still being finalized with regard to retail businesses and other operations.

“We’re still working out the gory details and I’ll meet with my directors [Friday] morning to figure out the specifics,” Gastesi said, adding that the county government will likely close all but essential services.

All measures are in place for 14 days to start, said Shannon Weiner, Monroe County emergency management director.

Decisions about county parks and beach closures as well as retail and restaurants will be made Friday, Gastesi emphasized.

An aerial of the southern portion of the 18-mile stretch in Key Largo. Keys officials announced Thursday they’d be closing its hotels starting on Sunday at 6 p.m. ANDY NEWMAN/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

The hotel shutdown announcement came in the wake of mounting criticism of the county’s decision to keep beaches, parks, restaurants, attractions and other potential gathering places open for business.

“This is the right thing to do,” said Marathon Mayor Steve Cook. “There was an extremely good collaborative conversation with all the Keys’ leaders and stakeholders, such as tourism officials, before we arrived at this decision.

“We sit on the border of the counties with the highest concentration of COVID-19 in the state of Florida. We have to flatten the curve. Also, this is not out of line with what other popular tourist destinations are doing in the United States such as Las Vegas.”

Cook said other things to consider are how to manage the needs of the Upper and Middle Keys residents who are seeing resources depleted by mainland residents who live within driving distance and are taking advantage of their proximity. “We need to execute this decision, wait for the reaction and then we will adjust as needed,” Cook said. 

Islamorada Mayor Mike Forster said the county’s actions were prudent to diminish the possibilities of an influx of a population from Miami-Dade, which has the highest rate of COVID-19 positive results in the state. But he says the restaurant issue isn’t settled yet, and he wants to see the dining in remain. 

“We’ve reduced the level of the congregation of people by so many, and we need to take care of our own,” he said. “If we abide by the governor’s order and we stay at 50% capacity, and we do 6-foot distancing, then we should keep going with that for now.”

Keys officials announced Thursday they’d be closing its hotels beginning Sunday at 6 p.m. An aerial of the 7-Mile Bridge. ANDY NEWMAN/FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier in the week ordered the closure of all bars and nightclubs, which are defined as establishments that earn 50% or more of their gross revenues from alcohol sales. The governor allowed restaurants to remain open.

On March 15, the city of Key West enacted stronger restrictions than the state was mandating. The city limited its restaurants to delivery and takeout only, prohibiting all on-site dining, inside and out. The city’s decision frustrated many Key West business owners, who questioned the inconsistency of prohibiting on-site dining in Key West when the county continued to allow it on the next island in the chain, just a few hundred yards from Key West. It’s likely restaurant restrictions throughout the Florida Keys will become consistent once county officials finalize their decisions Friday.

Key West also closed its largest beach, Smathers Beach, and two of its most popular city landmarks and gathering places — the Southernmost Point and the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square —  earlier this week to discourage large social gatherings. Further shutdowns were announced on Thursday, March 19, when Key West officials also required places such as theaters, museums, tour vehicles, charter boats and other fitness centers that attract more than 10 people at a time to close. Beaches and parks in Marathon and Islamorada are also closed, although Founders Park courts, trails and walkways remain open to individuals and small groups.

Join Our Blast – Keys News Right to Your INBOX