Key West officials considered, but ultimately withdrew, a proposed curfew that would have forced bars and restaurants to close from midnight to 7 a.m.
Instead, the City Commission agreed to work more closely with local bars and restaurants to increase enforcement of masks, hand-washing and social distancing while still sending a welcoming message to visitors.
More than 120 people tuned into the Nov. 10 emergency City Commission meeting via Zoom, and not one spoke in favor of the midnight curfew for bars and restaurants, which currently can stay open until 4 a.m.
After the withdrawal, Mayor Teri Johnston called for a COVID update at each meeting, and acknowledged the repeated suggestion from members of the public that officials consult regularly with representatives in the bar and restaurant industry.
“We do have repeat offenders and I think we need some of the others in the industry who are doing things right to speak up and tell some of these others that they could ruin it for everyone else,” Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover said.
During the special meeting, Commissioner Jimmy Weekley showed photographic examples he and other officials receive from concerned residents to illustrate coronavirus concerns. CONTRIBUTED
Dr. Jack Norris, chief of staff at Lower Keys Medical Center, acknowledged that there is no specific scientific basis for closing bars and restaurants and prohibiting alcohol sales between midnight and 7 a.m., as officials considered at the special meeting.
“Madame Mayor, if one person in this meeting thought a curfew would curtail COVID, there’s not a person in this room who would not support it,” business owner Michael Halpern told the city commissioners. “But to single out the bar and restaurant industry is enormously unfair. We have to treat all businesses equally and we have to respect COVID. It has no respect for time. It does respect masks and social distancing.”
Mayor Teri Johnston said she anticipated the opposition from the business community, and repeatedly asked each of the 20 or so speakers for suggestions about how the city and its businesses can be part of the solution.
“How do we get people to wear masks and follow our rules for masks, hand-washing and social distancing?” Johnston asked.
Scott Atwell, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber, reminded officials that the chamber staff answers the phone calls from people inquiring about a Key West vacation.
“If we have to say that Key West is shutting down at midnight, it’s going to impact everyone. It doesn’t send a very welcoming message,” Atwell said. “This will exponentially impact everyone during an already slow time. We at the chamber stand ready to help by using our vast social network to communicate our message that welcomes people to Key West and asks them to play by our rules. But closing at midnight — I can’t spin that.”
Michael Morawki, owner of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, also reminded the commissioners, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
“Madame Mayor, I’m sorry to tell you, we will not get 100% success with wearing masks,” Morawski said. “All we can do is ask people as nicely as possible and show them gratitude for doing things necessary to protect us and our staff. We should be thanking people for coming to our island and helping us recover from this crisis. Anytime you create a situation where you’re telling people what to do, you won’t create the best outcome.”
Johnston reminded some speakers that the city of Key West continues to have a mask mandate in place.
Lynne Hernandez, South Florida regional director of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, told the commissioners, “There is not a more giving, or more self-regulating industry than Key West bars and restaurants,” but she strongly encouraged the officials not to further cut workers’ hours and income. In a letter she sent on behalf of the FRLA, Hernandez summarized many business owners’ and workers’ sentiments about the curfew:
“Shutting the City down at midnight sends a negative message, and image to our potential guests considering Key West for their next trip, corporate meeting or wedding, equating to millions of dollars of lost revenue to the area. Your actions are completely contradictory to the approved messaging for tourism. Now is not the time to reimpose undue restrictions on your local businesses without clear and concise proof warranting such egregious measures. A midnight curfew is a business and job killer in a city already challenged to find staffing. If you
do not listen to your constituency and make the mistake of voting to pass a midnight curfew, you will be directly responsible for revenue and job loss in Key West. Are you prepared to supplement this loss for local families?… Have you also carefully considered a grant program to reimburse the hospitality industry for their staff’s lost hours and wages? Will you reimburse restaurants, hotels and bars for costs associated with lost revenue, job loss and cancellations? If not, vote no on a midnight curfew. Your decision will directly impact families, your
friends and your neighbors. This proposal is an unfounded action that lacks merit or reasoning. We expect our elected officials to represent the voice of the citizens. Your actions do not represent the desires or best interests of your constituents. We do not want our businesses to go backwards. We do not want a midnight curfew and you should not either.”