ON MAY 17, THE MONROE COUNTY Board of County Commissioners announced that the Florida Keys will officially be open to visitors beginning June 1, after being (sort of) closed to outsiders since March 22. Per the announcement, the checkpoints on U.S. 1 and Card Sound Road will be suspended, airport screenings and bus restrictions will be lifted, and the island chain’s lodging establishments will be able to host guests at 50% capacity (provided they follow the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s COVID-19 guidelines for cleaning and sanitation procedures).
Local government officials and physicians urge Monroe County residents to continue to wear masks in public settings, limit group sizes to ten people or less, and practice the “six-foot” social distancing rule. Unsurprisingly, the announcement provoked a variety of reactions in the local population, from acceptance and celebration to fear and frustration.
Wanting to dig a little deeper, your ever-curious local correspondent cast a wide net to solicit feedback, assuming that responses would run the ideological gamut. What I found, however, was an overwhelmingly concerned citizenry — concerned for their own health and safety, of course, but also concerned for the lives and livelihoods of their fellow citizens.
Here’s what they had to say.
“It was not the mega-bioscience research houses of our planet that crushed the life-threatening curve of affliction — it was our citizens. They put their financial futures at risk in extreme social distancing. The time their sacrifices gave us became time to equip. Thanks to that sacrifice, our hospitals report having ample personal protective equipment for staff. Noninvasive and invasive ventilatory support has been augmented. We now have testing — antibody and direct virus testing. Testing that shows great vulnerability in our people. The health department is virus contact tracing with good result, as demonstrated by our containment of initial local spread. Treatments are still very poor. So we keep ourselves healthy and work to guard our most vulnerable populations. Our citizens can only make this sacrifice so long. The roadblock, which separated us from more aggressive virus spread, has served us well but could not last forever. To go forward, we cannot depend on abstract concepts such as herd immunity or future treatments. Data so far suggests these may fail us. Social distancing is being relaxed in phases and must continue to be embraced. Washing, masking and keeping good distances adjusted to local virus spread continue to be our best weapons. Visitors seeking fun and recreation are only as likely to practice good sanitary behaviors as the locals with whom they interact. It will be all of you that guide our visitors. Healthcare calls on all of you again to embrace the phased relaxation of social distancing while frequently washing your hands, wearing the mask in tight quarters and politely reminding the pleasure seeker to keep up their guard. So we again call to our community to starve this virus’s spread. Rekindle your resolve to open smart in monitored phases. Rekindle our economy with eyes open and your personal citizenship in declaration of one human family.”
—John W. Norris III, MD, doctor
Trust Your Leaders
“We are caught in a catch-22 situation. Whether we open or not, people will perish. I feel that our island is not quite ready for the influx of people or the uptick in people who will get sick. The shelves in our stores are not even fully stocked, entertainment venues are still closed and our hospital is small. This will create panic. On the other side of the coin, if we don’t open soon our suicide rates can and will increase. People can’t afford to pay their rent and there isn’t enough resources to assist them. Many people are currently not supporting the places that are open to sustain them. These are dark times we face. Our leaders are faced with tough choices and either way they vote, we face the possibility of death in our community. It has always been the plan to reopen the Keys by June 1. It was stated early on in this epidemic. The Keys were not closed because of prevention, but for lowering the curve and letting our hospitals not get overwhelmed with patients like they have in other places. It is a percentages game. It has been stated that if our percentages go up, things will close again. Locals are not supporting enough places to keep them going and a lot of our island families need money. Be safe, be smart and focus on you and what you can do for your family to be safe and stay healthy. These are unprecedented times and our leaders are doing the best they can.”
—Jennifer Hughes, Fantasy Fest 2018 Duchess
What About Benchmarks?
“After meeting none of the outlined benchmarks for re-opening, the county announces it will re-open anyway. The County’s ‘Framework for Relaxing COVID-19 Protective Measures’ outlined a list of benchmarks that would be met to deal with re-opening. According to the county’s framework, re-opening only happens when there are no new cases or a downward trend and the Department of Health is comfortable with data from tourist feeder zones. Miami-Dade and Broward are both tourist feeder zones and on Sunday they announced that they have 334 new cases. How would that number be something that DOH would see as a comfortable situation? Not to mention the fact that we arguably never even reached the first benchmark, which would have allowed us to begin discussing re-opening. They put out this statement that says ‘the checkpoint has done what it needed to do,’ which is sort of true, but is wrongly in the past tense, as the pandemic is ongoing and not trending downward. The decision to re-open doesn’t feel like it was made according to public health interests. It feels like it comes from business interests.”
—Dakin Weekley, store manager
We Need More Information
“Consumer confidence is key to long term economic recovery. Fix the health and the economy will follow on its own. We need to test everyone often, contact trace and isolate the positives. In my opinion, state and federal statistics are not accurate — it is estimated that infections are 60% higher globally than has been reported. The county is opening a month too soon. Why? Who voted in favor of opening? We need to have mandatory mask and social distancing policies with consequences for individuals who don’t follow them, plus better education on why those policies are important. We need to take divisive politics out of mask wearing and show how it feels good to be compassionate. It is important to understand that the virus can infect young, healthy people — not just seniors. Finally, there hasn’t been enough discussion on all the available tests. Some are inaccurate, others are better. The whole thing is happening so fast, it only makes sense that some tests (and possibly vaccines, when they’re developed) won’t be accurate and may even be harmful. We need more information.”
—Adele Gerbracht, Key West artist
Health and Economy Intertwined
“As concerned as I am regarding the inevitable surge when we open and how we are prepared, I am even more concerned about the divisive chatter regarding health and the economy — both of which are equally important. Where is the long-term discussion? If we get overwhelmed, there will be no economy. We are experiencing an understandable lack of trust, values and vision. We are all affected emotionally, financially and morally — old and young, worker and retiree. As of June 1, many new cases will be at our doorstep. We will soon be in the hands of business owners who we must trust to obey the guidelines set forth and protect not only us but their employees as well. Just when we were beginning to feel a bit more adjusted and come out, we now must choose again to shelter in place. I have said ‘slow and steady,’ but this doesn’t feel like it. I would much prefer to open with plans tested and in place. Now it’s up to the local government to enforce the guidelines to keep the numbers in check.”
—Ellen Steininger, 49-year Key West resident
Who You Gonna Call?
“How will the rules for masks and distancing be enforced by the City/County? As a business owner, I require shoppers adhere to these rules. If a shopper refuses to do so, despite being offered a mask free of charge, and will not leave, who do I call on for assistance? Where’s the support? I have the right to a safe and disease-free workspace, but I don’t want to be bullied into lowering my standards just to make a buck.”
—Mark Klammer, owner, Shade Ceramics & Shutter Photography
Set an Example
“As we work on guidelines to reopen the Key West Farmer’s Market, we feel our local clientele will be courteous and respectful. And while we definitely benefit from second homeowners and vacationers who want to spend their money here, we are concerned they come from cities and states with completely different rules. We not only will have to educate them on what our community leaders have put in place here, but we’ll have to find a way to enforce those mandates to potentially uncooperative guests. You hear stories about people getting into arguments, fistfights and even a shooting with workers at private places of business over social distancing protocols. We’re not naïve to think that can’t happen in Key West once the doors are open.”
—Jill Edwards Snodgrass, Event Director, Key West Artisan Market
“This is a really bad decision. I feel so horrifically upset for the doctors and the people who address our medical needs down here because they’re going to get their asses kicked. They’re already freaking out and I don’t blame them. I’m a broke bartender, but I would rather go hungry than lose my life. I would rather count on the every-other-day free meals generous locals are providing than have my friends getting sick and thrown on ventilators. I would love nothing more than to lean across the bar and hand someone a martini and talk about their life, but opening too soon is not the right answer for any of us. Greed is going to kill more people and that’s what’s going to happen in the Keys.”
—Laurie Thibaud, bartender and radio personality
Business Owners Face Catch-22
“As a business owner who had to close the doors after 16 years due to the pandemic, my thoughts on the reopening of Key West are this: After being locked down for eight weeks and sacrificing a lot, we were able to keep the number of viruses down to an absolute minimum. I am very concerned about what will happen letting the outside world in. Having said that, I feel for my fellow business owners and I understand the need for tourism. I look forward to a bright future for Key West. My hope is that it can be done safely. I want nothing more than for Key West to thrive and prosper. Key West is a very special place and my hopes are it stays that way.”
—Diane Pittaro- Glorie, former owner, Coffee Plantation
Limited Medical Resources
“I do not agree with the June 1 full opening. I know that there will still be some restrictions and safety precautions in place, however I don’t feel that those are enough for a community this small with such limited access to resources. The majority of my working career has been in the medical field, including 20+ years at Lower Keys Medical Center. While I do know that Lower Keys Medical Center has an amazing fully trained staff, I don’t know if this medical community as a whole currently will be able to support a spike in COVID-19 cases. I feel as though the community could benefit from a stage-by-stage reopening that is more tempered. Getting supplies into Key West alone will pose a problem if there is a spike. I already know the naysayers are saying I’m living in the ‘what ifs,’ however there is no better way to be prepared than asking ‘what if?’ My father, Commissioner Clayton Lopez, has underlying health conditions, as does his wife, but my worry is for them. I can’t imagine dropping my loved ones at the hospital doors and not being there with them.”
—Atavia Talandieu Dor, 4th generation Conch
Control What You Can
“I have maintained my sanity in a reasonable fashion throughout my entire life by never worrying about the things that I cannot control. The reopening of the Florida Keys and Key West is one of those ‘things.’ I will continue to do what I have done from the onset of this ‘pandemic’ and wash my hands, wear my mask and not put myself in the position of being exposed to anyone that might carry the virus. That I can control, and I can do so while not having to be a hermit.”
—Larry Blackburn, photographer
“I am a small business owner who, needless to say, has been heavily impacted by this. No unemployment, no PPP, no anything. If my clients cannot afford my framing and restoration services, then I have no income. The rent and bills keep coming, both at my home and place of business. That said, I fear for the influx of what is to come. I’d rather lose my business, which I really, really don’t want to happen, than lose my life or the lives of my friends and family. The horse will be out of the barn and there is nothing we can do about it.”
—Barbara Feinberg, owner, Bone Island Graphics and Framing
“This problem is essentially a political problem. Other than the bewailing of a segment of the downtown business establishment, the real problem is the division between the residents who prefer the roadblock to continue its obviously successful flattening of the curve and the other segment of the population who are hurting financially (or ideologically) and want the roadblock down. As far as I can tell, the real villain here is the state system of unemployment installed by Rick Scott. Under any reasonable system, the bulk of Key West workers would be receiving a check weekly. They would be spending that money at local businesses. I don’t know anyone who is actually receiving the benefits they are due. If the unemployed residents were receiving this support, there would be little real benefit to the workforce from opening the roadblock. This cynical plan to deny access to unemployment serves state and national leadership goals; it splits the populace into warring camps, it forces workers back into dangerous jobs and it is a further denial of worker’s right to benefits they are clearly qualified for.”
—John Martini, artist