Last-Ditch Efforts

Officials put every plan in place to protect against spread during mini-season

Monroe County commissioners placed more restrictions on Keys vacation rentals to mitigate coronavirus spread, by implementing occupancy limits and requiring information of property managers in event of large gathering complaints. 

The July 21 emergency meeting grew out of officials’ increasing anxiety about the coming lobster mini-season (July 29-30) and the resulting crowds, especially in the Upper Keys, as well as the coronavirus spikes in the neighboring counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Officials sought to bring all the available tools to the table, short of asking Tallahassee to cancel the state-scheduled lobster holiday.

Commissioners unanimously agreed at their meeting to alter the county’s COVID-19 vacation rental plan slightly, to place occupancy limits of two people per bedroom plus two. That means a two-bedroom vacation rental can house up to six people. 

Vacation rental companies must also provide local management information in the way of a name and phone number that’s posted on a sign outside the building in the event there’s a complaint. 

Monroe County sent its vacation rental plan to the state Department of Business and Professional Development Regulation in late May that allowed rentals to reopen June 1. Case numbers have spiked since that time, and it’s drawing concern from Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers. 

“Clearly it’s not going in the direction we’d hoped it would go and that’s why we’re having this meeting,” she said. 

Carruthers noted that in some cases, vacation rentals are managed or owned by those outside the Keys. “That’s part of what we’re trying to get under control,” she said. “A lot of our vacation rental people are doing the right thing.”

The City of Marathon already has similar rules on the books, said Marathon Mayor Steve Cook. On an extra note of caution, the city is sending letters to all vacation rentals that it knows about to advise them of the rules.

As for the upcoming lobster mini-season, a majority of county commissioners were against issuing a letter to the state and Florida Fish & Wildlife calling for its cancellation. The two-day season is Wednesday, July 29, and Thursday, July 30. 

Commissioner Sylvia Murphy acknowledged her support in sending a letter, but said that doing away with the short season wouldn’t be likely at this juncture. 

Key Colony Beach and Islamorada have already issued letters to the governor asking that the mini-season be canceled this year. The Key West City Commission did not discuss the lobster mini-season at its July 21 meeting, nor was the topic on the city agenda. Marathon voted 3-2 against issuing a letter, while Layton hasn’t sent a letter to the county or state. 

In a bid to reduce the number of daytrippers to the Upper Keys in the coming weeks, the county will limit boat ramp access, as Sunset Point Park in Key Largo and Harry Harris Park in Tavernier will be open for residents only from July 24 to Aug. 9. Rowell’s Park and Bay Drive in Key Largo will be closed to all of the public during that period. The action comes after the village of Islamorada announced it would be closing parks, beaches and ramps July 24 through Aug. 19. Founders Park will remain open to residents while Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina will be open to residents and lodging guests. 

Marathon will hold a special call meeting on Friday, July 24 to address how to operate boat ramps and parks during the mini-season. Cook acknowledged that closures in the Upper Keys will likely have an adverse effect in the Middle Keys if boaters looking to launch continue to travel south. Marathon has three public boat ramps — at 33rd Street, Harbor Drive and The Quay, which is currently under reconstruction but has opened on weekends to allow access. The meeting was called by Commissioner Luis Gonzalez, who earlier voted to send a letter to Tallahassee asking for the cancellation of lobster mini season. 

Miami-Dade and Broward counties have instituted curfews from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.  On July 15, Monroe County passed a similar ban: restaurants (which now serve as major gathering sites due to the closure of “bars,” as defined by the state) must be closed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. from Friday, July 24 to Aug. 19. The rule will apply to the entire Keys. The city of Marathon declined to pass anything more restrictive. 

“Most of the places in Marathon close by around 10 p.m. anyways,” said Cook.

In the county’s special call meeting on July 21, two things came off the table. While there was discussion about limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer, the commissioners allowed the 50-person rule to stand. It is also revising its policy that a business must close for three days in the case of an employee’s COVID-19 infection; the rule is revoked in the meantime. 

Sara Matthis, Mandy Miles and Tiffany Duong contributed to this report. 

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