Key West city commissioners viewed a collection of photographs at their Nov. 17 meeting showing downtown crowds with no masks. Contributed

Key West lawmakers discussed changing the city’s mask requirements, increasing enforcement of it, creating “mask-required zones” in crowded areas and evaluating the city’s hotel and bar capacity.

The discussion came nearly four hours into the Nov. 17 City Commission meeting, when attendance had dropped from 37 to 25 virtual participants. Although listed as a discussion item, the “COVID Update” included a call from Mayor Teri Johnston for “the courage to make serious decisions.”

“We’ve got to find solutions right now,” Johnston said after the commission saw a collection of photos showing throngs of people — including tourists and bar/restaurant workers — who were not wearing masks on Duval Street. “How do we change that behavior? How do we stay open during the holidays? The governor certainly didn’t help us with his order that prevents us from citing individuals, but can we do?”

Key West Code Compliance Director Jim Young, who is quarantined and sick with COVID, told the commission that he and his staff have never experienced the sort of treatment they’ve been receiving during enforcement patrols downtown.

“I and my staff have been physically accosted. We’ve been spit on, and verbally abused,” Young told the commission, while showing a list of businesses that have been cited repeatedly for their staff and/or customers not wearing masks. Fifteen citations have been issued to businesses, with Jack Flats receiving four citations; Fogarty’s receiving three citations and Caroline’s receiving two citations. Fat Tuesday, Waterfront Brewery, The Greene Room and Pinchers each was cited once. The brewery, Jack Flats, Caroline’s and Fogarty’s all are owned by restaurateur Joe Walsh, who has been in repeated legal opposition to the city of Key West over the disputed restaurant lease at Mallory Square.

“We need you to manage your own businesses inside your businesses so we can manage the streets of Key West,” Johnston told business owners and organizations who were at the commission meeting or watching online. “It can’t be an us-against-them type of thing. We need full commitment from this entire community.”

The commission had met in an emergency session on Nov. 10 to discuss a midnight curfew for bars and restaurants. The proposal met with vehement opposition from business owners who claimed it would be discriminatory, while health and hospital officials questioned the effectiveness of a curfew.

“Whatever we’re doing now is not working and each of us was elected to keep the people of Key West safe,” Johnston said.

The commissioners on Nov. 17 effectively “opened the checkbook” for City Manager Greg Veliz to do whatever it takes to enforce the city’s mask ordinance, including possibly hiring private security companies. During the late-night discussion, commissioners also considered establishing “mask zones’ on Duval Street, at the Historic Seaport, the Southernmost Point and Mallory Square, areas where people congregate without wearing masks.

“We’re talking about mass of humanity,” City Manager Greg Veliz told the commission, adding that enforcement capability “will always be a problem.”

Commissioner Sam Kaufman said he wants the city to “look at hotel capacity as well. Obviously, the problem is serious. Our numbers are spiking. And here we are talking about canceling a menorah and Christmas tree lighting when we have thousands of people downtown without masks. I think we need to look at bar and hotel capacities.”

Commissioner Greg Davila pointed out, “While we’re certainly grateful that people are here and visiting Key West, I also look at it as these are people who are deciding to travel during a pandemic.”

Affordable housing 

workshop — again

In other city news, surprise, surprise, the City Commission chose to hold yet another affordable housing workshop to discuss the future  — yet again — of the 6 or so acres at Truman Waterfront that have long been slated to somehow benefit the Bahama Village community with both housing and commercial development.

Johnston said too many questions remain about the development of that property and the city needs more information as well as an affordable housing director.

“We need to find the funds for that position,” Johnston said, asking Commissioner Clayton Lopez, “Is there an expectation that housing at the waterfront will be for current Bahama Village residents?”

“Yes, there is an expectation on their part and on mine,” Lopez said.

But Johnston pointed out that such expectations will affect the funding that’s available for that housing, “because it could be viewed as discriminatory and we simply need more information. I have very little appetite to discuss affordable housing until we have facts,” she said.

“We need a housing director so we can move projects like the one at the waterfront through without taking 13 years to move ahead in bits and pieces.”

Kaufman has been calling for an affordable housing workshop for more than a year and may finally have gotten the commission to agree. Officials will schedule the workshop at their meeting Thursday, Nov. 19, which was slated to be a retreat, but will likely become an official public meeting to include discussion of the new COVID rules and mandates.

Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover also asked whether the city has approached AH Monroe about partnering in a housing venture at the waterfront.

“Why reinvent the wheel when there’s someone out there that knows exactly how to do this?” Hoover said. 

Veliz told the commission that he had met years ago with the leaders of AH Monroe, which has built affordable housing at Poinciana Royale, Marty’s Place and other locations.

“Honestly, it’s been so long, I don’t remember how those discussions ended, but I’d be happy to meet with them again to see what’s possible,” Veliz said.

Wisteria Island

Before the commissioners started their COVID discussions, they heard a report from Ed Russo, who heads the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition.

The group is working with the federal government, including President Trump, Russo said, about establishing an environmental educational center and wildlife refuge on Wisteria Island.

The 28-acre, manmade island off Key West has no chance of commercial development, Russo said, due to its population of white-crowned pigeons.

“I’ve been meeting with various stakeholders to build consensus about what should be done with Wisteria Island,” Russo told the commission. “I think we should make it an environmental education center and refuge. There is no development potential on the island. Nothing. Zero.”

He told the commissioners he would return in the coming weeks or months with a formal proposal that includes input from dozens of groups and individuals.

The island is currently used as an unofficial camp for homeless people and liveaboard boat residents. 

“Every day there are safety, security and sanitation concerns on the island,” Russo said. ”It’s a mess.”

Russo added that federal funding for a new project at Wisteria Island could be available from the Great American Outdoors Act, “the best environmental legislation this country has seen since Teddy Roosevelt,” he said. “They have the money to help us with this, and I’ll be back with a proposal for you in the coming weeks.”

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