Five new Islamorada council members sworn into office went right to work at their first meeting by extending a permit suspension for special events in the village to April 1 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Before rendering their decision Thursday evening inside the community center at Founders Park, the Florida Health Department’s Bob Eadie told the dais he doesn’t foresee any significant improvement that would allow large gatherings to safely occur in early 2021. That means major events like Gigantic Nautical Flea Market won’t go on at Founders Park next February.
Donning masks and standing 6 feet, council members were sworn into office one-by-one as a small crowd of family members and village officials inside the center looked on. Council members subsequently walked to their seats where plastic dividers and hand sanitizer awaited them.
The public and a majority of village staff watched from their computers at home in what was a hybrid-style format.
A discussion later in the meeting ensued between council, village leaders and the county’s health officer over the continued suspension of temporary use permits for special events and large gatherings within the village and at Founders Park. Prior to the new members’ arrival, the former council enacted a measure in August that put a halt to special events and gatherings in the village and the park. It went through Oct. 31 as a precautionary measure in response to the pandemic, which in recent time has seen an increase in cases.
Key events in Islamorada like the swim to Alligator Lighthouse and Tour De Reef Bike Ride were canceled. With organizers requesting temporary use permits for upcoming events, the council agreed the time wasn’t right to group scores of people together just yet — or even into the new year. Discussion keyed in on the Gigantic Nautical Flea Market, a notable Upper Keys Rotary Club event in February at Founders that attracts hundreds of vendors and thousands of people — all while generating a quarter-million dollars for students’ higher education on an annual basis.
In his remarks to the council, Eadie noted the uptick in cases in Monroe County and the likelihood that it will “only get worse,” especially after Thanksgiving. Seventy-three new cases were reported by the health department on Thursday and 38 the day before — more than half coming from the Key West. Eadie attributed that to visitors in bars and restaurants and those not wearing masks.
While Eadie noted that it’s OK for the Rotary club to continue planning, he said he’s “very pessimistic” the Keys will be in a position for a large-scale, outdoor event.
“It would be a high-risk event because you’re bringing a great deal of people, well in excess of 50 people, and they’re in a confined area,” Eadie said. “I would want to really see that the spread of the virus was really in control before I can tell you I think it’s a good thing to go forward and have these events.”
Joe Roth, member of the Upper Keys Rotary, explained to the council that the club’s plan for the event went lengths to increase separation and spread out food and drink opportunities to limit large congregations in one place. In addition, the plan would sprawl out vendors using twice the area the flea market usually takes up at the park in combination with limiting the number of vendors — and potentially the number of shoppers.
“Clearly we don’t want to have an event that’s going to be dangerous, and we certainly understand that and we wouldn’t be a part of that either. But I think the consensus on our side is if there’s a way to do it safe, and if there’s a way to mitigate some of these things and still have an event, that’s what we’re trying to keep the door open to,” he said.
Roth said the club has a “rainy day” fund for instances where weather, or in this case a pandemic, impacts the event. However, the monies from that fund wouldn’t be as impactful when looking at the funds generated from the weekend-long flea market, Roth acknowledged.
Councilman David Webb asked if there’s any consideration for a different date later in the year when the council might have more confidence in a change in the pandemic’s status. In response, Roth said vendors tend to travel in a circuit of events with the Nautical Flea Market a part of that.
“Of course, what’s going on today has kind of thrown that (in) upheaval, and they might be attending one event and not attending another because it’s canceled. This year’s strange,” he said. “But historically speaking, it’s really hard to change that date because their whole schedule is predicated on a number of events that happen in a sequence, and we’re just one of those in a sequence.”
Other major upcoming events including the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce’s Holiday Fest next month and Baygrass Bluegrass in January were canceled by organizers. Pops in the Park, which holds monthly concerts at the park beginning in January, was waiting on the village council’s decision.
In hearing Eadie, Councilman Mark Gregg said he didn’t get the feeling the pandemic is ending anytime soon.
“I don’t want them (event organizers) to think if it’s still bad we’re going to suddenly change our minds,” he said. “I don’t want to make a decision that ends in a funeral.”
Webb agreed with Gregg’s sentiments.
“I would hope that maybe there might be some possibility the event could be rescheduled if we gave you an earlier definitive decision that it wasn’t going to be in February. That might give you more flexibility and leverage with your own groups and vendors to make other plans,” he said.
While vaccines are nearing rollout, Eadie acknowledged they won’t be readily available to the public until summer at the earliest. Eadie echoed Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statements that the public will still need to take the necessary public measures even after the vaccine arrives.
“It’ll take a while for them to roll it out into the community as a whole,” he said.
Flea Market organizers are now working to put on a virtual event.