Key West’s mask madness has gotten ugly, with business owners and residents turning against city officials — and each other — in their efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 and prevent business closures.

A Facebook group called “No To Key West Outdoor Mask Mandate” has formed in opposition to the city commission’s Thursday passage of an emergency ordinance requiring masks whenever someone leaves their residence.

Restaurant owner Joe Walsh’s businesses — Jack Flats, Waterfront Brewery, Caroline’s, and Fogarty’s — have received 10 of the 13 citations issued by code compliance officers for non-mask compliance. Walsh told the city commission on Thursday that he has a “don’t ask don’t tell” mask policy in place because the way to prevent infection is by keeping sick people away from others. Walsh said he ensures his employees are paid and fed during their quarantine period. Of his 463 employees, his restaurants have seen 12 positive cases and have quarantined 62 workers, Walsh told Keys Weekly on Friday afternoon.

“The city is overly simplifying things by saying that wearing masks keeps people safe,” he said. “It’s giving people an artificial sense of security that masks will prevent infection. The way to prevent infection is by keeping sick people away from other people, not by telling sick people to wear masks and go to work.”

Business owner Marie Pierre Sanders agrees with Walsh about the mask requirement and accused city officials at Thursday’s special meeting of disregarding the governor’s executive order that prohibits penalties for individuals not wearing masks. 

“What makes you, Madame Mayor and city officials, think you’re above the governor’s executive order?” she asked. “Our island is being destroyed by your actions and people are turning against each other.”

Longtime resident Christine Russell reminded the commissioners they were elected to represent — and protect — everyone, “not just the business owners.”

Other restaurant owners have pleaded with city officials not to let the actions of a “few bad actors” prompt the city to enact a shutdown of all businesses, most of which are working to comply with the mandate.

“The division that’s happening in this town is not good,” said Bill Lay, who owns La Trattoria, Virgilio’s and La Trattoria Oceanside. “Close to 100% of businesses are trying to comply, but the bridges between people are growing longer, not shorter.” 

Restaurant owner Danny Hughes of Two Friends Patio Restaurant, suggested in writing Thursday afternoon that the city “use the tools that it has” by enforcing its lease with Walsh for the city-owned property he leases at Waterfront Brewery.

“With the resurgence of COVID cases in Key West, the city commission has re-enacted one of the most onerous mask ordinances in the country,” Hughes wrote. “Requiring a mask when walking outside alone has no basis in science, which has already been proven. Why not enforce the existing ordinances — and the existing leases that are in place — to try to reverse the resurgence of COVID-19? The majority of the business community has responded admirably to the pandemic, but there are a few ‘bad actors’ that geometrically drive the number of cases upwards. It is unconscionable to punish the majority of businesses with a shutdown for the sake of a few businesses that we do not hold accountable under the terms of their leases. In short: Use the tools you’ve got before buying new ones.”

Walsh declined to comment specifically on Hughes’ email, as he had not seen it as of Friday afternoon. But Walsh did say that the city’s code case against Waterfront Brewery for non-mask compliance was dismissed Thursday afternoon.

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