An aerial view of the Fills during the Fourth of July. The area from MM 77.5 to 79.8 was closed off through July 7 as a COVID-19 protection measure. The Fills subsequently reopened at 50% capacity to limit visitors. DAVID GROSS/Contributed

Activity on the Fills remained quiet during the Fourth of July weekend due to the village’s full closure as a COVID-19 protective measure. The area reopened to the public on July 7 at lower capacity, after Islamorada council members agreed to cut the number of parking spots at the popular hangout spot in half. 

Action taken during a July 1 special meeting came following a request by Vice Mayor Ken Davis to close off the state-owned lands, where many daytrippers come to spend their weekends from now through Labor Day. Some council members expressed concern that closing the Fills could jeopardize a sublease the village has with the Florida Department of Transportation to manage the shoreline area. That led to a compromise to reduce parking spots by 50%. 

Davis said he wasn’t trying to close down the FIlls altogether. He said keeping the area open Monday through Thursday would give people plenty of opportunity to enjoy the beachside. 

“When we have to start to staff the Fills with our people, we’re asking them to interact with the very people we’re trying to keep them away from and keep them from getting infected. Our deputies, our staff personnel, why are we running this risk at all?” Davis said. “We’re trying to slow the roll of this pandemic. We have to start to actually try to slow the roll completely, not partially.”

There are some 80 parking spots on the Fills, on Tea Table, Indian and Lignumvitae Keys. A reduction would bring that number to 40. Councilman Jim Mooney said council could reduce that even more if necessary. 

“That would be really helpful without jeopardizing the lease. Second of all, we’re a tourist community,” he said. “Unless we put the roadblock back up, they are going to come. It’s just a matter of where they are going to congregate.”

“When we have to start to staff the Fills with our people, we’re asking them to interact with the very people we’re trying to keep them away from and keep them from getting infected. Our deputies, our staff personnel, why are we running this risk at all?”

Islamorada Vice Mayor Ken Davis

Village Attorney Roget Bryan told council that the village has the authority to limit access under terms of a lease with FDOT. In April, village council approved a five-year sublease with FDOT to maintain the Fills. The 2019-20 budget includes $47,600 in the public works department for a full-time Fills facility attendant and an additional $30,000 for rental of portable toilets and other operating supplies.  

With checkpoints down and visitors flowing into the Keys, village Public Works Director A.J. Engelmeyer told the council that the Fills are anywhere from 75% to 100% full during the week, and at capacity by 9 a.m. on weekends. 

“We spend the entire day patrolling the parking and everything,” he said. “Whether we keep Fills open or closed, it will still be fully staffed. That’s to control parking. If I have signs and everything else, they’re still coming.”

With new cases of COVID-19 spiking, councilman Chris Sante said the village needs to take a stand and limit capacity. 

“You see every weekend … the sandbar is a joke,” he said. “We’ve got to take steps ourselves even though people don’t like it. We got to step up and say enough is enough.”

With approval, Davis said that “if we can’t stop it, reduction’s a win.”

Village council will meet on Thursday, July 16 at 5:30 p.m. On the agenda will be discussion over a towing ordinance at the Fills and examination into upping parking fines. In the meantime, Mooney told staff to get council a hard scheme of the Fills at 50% parking capacity with fencing. 

“We have to take control of this now,” he said. “The Fills have been a pain in the rear end for 20 years. It’s time to end this nonsense with the Fills.”

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