Locals like to joke about “blowing the bridges” — an isolation technique much wished for during high season. Well, no one’s laughing anymore.
Four things happened: One, many locals noticed an influx of Miami-Dade residents shopping at local grocery stores starting a week ago and depleting resources needed by locals. Two, this past weekend (March 21-22) officials reported an influx of day-trippers headed to state parks and Keys sandbars. And while those two pieces of evidence are anecdotal, then Gov. Rick DeSantis remarked on a troubling trend during his March 24 press conference: the number of flights to Florida from the tri-state New York area increased about fivefold, with flyers escaping high-contagion areas to the Sunshine State. Finally, the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing every day, especially in the two counties bordering the Keys: Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
That was enough to convince the Monroe County executive board and the mayors of Keys municipalities to ask the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to set up two checkpoints: one on the 18-Mile Stretch, the other on Card Sound Road, close to Key Largo.
“No one is happy to take this step,” said Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers, “but we are doing it in the hope we can ‘flatten the curve’ and avoid more drastic measures.”
The checkpoints are purposely located inside the Keys, so as not to cause traffic jams in Florida City. The checkpoints are intended to stop visitors who have no reason to come to the islands.
Sheriff Rick Ramsay said he is putting together the plan on short notice and the checkpoints will be staffed by the morning of Friday, March 27.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Ramsay said. “While we can get a little help from the Florida Highway Patrol, we can’t rely on the National Guard or law enforcement agencies on the mainland.”
Only residents, property owners, and those actively involved in work in the Florida Keys will be admitted, including fuel tankers, delivery and grocery trucks.
Proof of residency can be demonstrated with a resident reentry sticker, local identification, utility bill, deed, lease or tax bill. Those actively engaged in work in the Florida Keys, such as construction workers, will need to show a letter from their employer, employee identification, a pay stub, or current construction contract in the Keys. First responders, healthcare workers and military actively engaged in work in the Keys will need proper IDs.
Ramsay said he still needs more clarification from the county .
“If Monroe County residents leave the county, can they come back? If there are three passengers in the car and only one local ID, can they all come in?” he asked. “Some motorists will think they are entitled to lawful entry, but are not; and others will have a lawful reason, but can’t prove it.”
Marathon Mayor Steve Cook said he sees both sides of the coin.
“Closing the highway to visitors limits exposure to COVD-19,” Cook said. “But it comes with challenges of logistics supply chain movement and residents’ abilities to make important medical appointments, etc. This is not a simple decision and will be challenging for the Sheriff’s Department. I would ask that all our residents be courteous and helpful. “
Islamorada Mayor Mike Forster said it’s in the best interest of the chain of islands.
“By restricting the flow of traffic from the mainland at the moment, it’s a step to help speed up the healing process of social distancing, and most importantly, furthers the health and protection of our constituents,” he said.
Since short-term visitors were asked to leave the Keys, officials say traffic has decreased between 45% and 50% on Overseas Highway.
Delays are possible at checkpoints and officials advise not to call 911 with non-emergency questions about U.S. 1.
Ramsay said he was unsure how long his agency could maintain the checkpoints. The county has not said how long they will be in place.