U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell listens to family members whose loved ones reside at Crystal Health & Rehab Center during a sit-down inside the Roth Building in Islamorada on May 19. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Keys fishermen who’ve been out of work for two months still wait for response on their loan and unemployment applications. Families wait to hear the test results on their loved ones who live inside an Upper Keys long-term care facility.

The topics were among conversations U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell conducted with constituents during a visit to Islamorada throughout the morning and early afternoon of May 19. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and in anticipation of a Keys reopening, Mucarsel-Powell held a series of discussions to gather concerns while outlining federal response plans geared to support the public through the Heroes Act, which passed the House last week. It awaits consideration in the Senate, but it’s unknown if or when that chamber will  take up the bill. 

Among those financially hurting from the pandemic are many Keys fishermen. For the fishing industry nationwide, few dollars were seen in the initial round of relief through the CARES Act — $300 million. On May 7, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said those funds, of which a little over $23 million was awarded to Florida, will be disbursed. 

The second round of funding through the Heroes Act proposes an additional $100 million for commercial and charter fishermen.

“I asked for more,” Mucarsel-Powell told the small group of fishermen in the room. 

Local fishermen continue to wait for response to unemployment and loan applications. Mucarsel-Powell said the Heroes Act does include improvements to the Payroll Protection Program loan forgiveness. Under the Heroes Act, the program that aims to provide loans to businesses hurt by the pandemic would extend the amount of time borrowers can use to spend the loans from June 30 to Dec. 31, 2020. Small businesses affected by coronavirus-related issues between Feb. 15 and June 30 can apply. 

Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association Commodore Steve Friedman said the key word in all of it is “loans.” He said guides already have lots of loans that “we don’t need any more debt.” Mucarsel-Powell said that loans from PPP are forgivable.

As for the state’s shaky unemployment system, Murcarsel-Powell said the money’s there but “they’re not disbursing it. 

“I’ve been putting pressure on the governor. He is the leader right now,” she said. “We are providing our staff to help out and see if there’s anything (the state) needs, and there’s been no communication.”

Fishermen speak to Debbie Mucarsel-Powell on the challenges they’re facing, during a socially-distant roundtable at the Roth Building on May 19. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekl

Following a conversation with fishermen, Mucarsel-Powell welcomed a few families to speak about the ongoing issues they’re facing over test results of their loved ones who live at the Crystal Health & Rehab Center on Plantation Key. So far, 15 residents and six staff at the long-term care facility have tested positive for COVID-19. But not all results are back yet, after some were found inconclusive when the state first tested residents earlier in the month. Residents and their families waited more than a week for response.  

Among those awaiting results back is Jennifer Baker, mother of 30-year-old Brittany, who resides at the facility. Jennifer told Mucarsel-Powell that Brittany’s been at the facility for seven years following a car accident. 

Jennifer said she was told that her daughter’s results were inconclusive as they were “damaged.” She said the communication at the outset from the administration at the facility has been “honestly disgusting,” while testing has been a “joke.”

“I’ve gotten the administrator on the phone one time,” Baker said. 

Mucarsel-Powell called the situation “totally unacceptable,” and following the conversation, she went to Crystal Health & Rehab Center to speak with the executive director, Ruth Robinson. Coming out of the facility, Mucarsel-Powell said she was assured by the director that they were going to provide the necessary communication to families. 

Speaking on the Heroes Act, Mucarsel-Powell said it codifies the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) guidelines requiring any nursing facility to communicate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within 72 hours when they have positive cases in senior living facilities. It also requires that facilities communicate with families within 24 hours. 

“Those guidelines exist; what we did in the House is to make sure we enacted guidelines into law,” she said. 

Emerald Health, which runs Crystal Health & Rehab Center, said last week that a hotline was set up for families to call for updated information. That number is 305-363-0252.

As the noon hour hit, the congresswoman made her way to Founders Park where a food distribution event was held in collaboration with Feeding South Florida, Monroe County, Ocean Reef Community Foundation and United Way of Collier and the Keys. After handing out a few hot meals to locals, she held a press conference to discuss a reopening of the Keys that will happen in less than two weeks.  

While Monroe County is a piece of paradise, Mucarsel-Powell said, visitors need to keep in mind that the area is vulnerable, with hospital capacity limited.

“We welcome you (visitors) to come and visit us because our livelihood depends on tourism. Please take into account it’s a vulnerable community where everyone (here) has stepped up, taking these decisions seriously to protect each other, and we need to do the same as we come down the Keys to visit,” she said.

Joining the press conference was Dr. Jack Norris, chief of staff at Lower Keys Medical Center. Norris said the county checkpoint and strict social distancing protected health care workers in the Keys. He credits the many locals throughout the islands for the sacrifice they made. 

Norris said health care professionals will be monitoring the situation as the Keys reopen to visitors, and they will inform leadership if a surge is seen. 

“We want this open, but we want everyone safe,” he said. “We don’t want a day where limited resources cause deaths beyond that the disease would have taken away. We are Keys strong and we are Keys healthy.”

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell speaks with Islamorada Mayor Mike Forster and Leah Stockton, area president of the United Way of Collier and the Keys, at Founders Park on May 19. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

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