Florida Keys officials struggle to interpret executive order

Florida Keys officials had to weekend to figure out what Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Friday executive order, which lifted just about every COVID-19 restriction put in place since March, meant for the island chain.

Sleeping on it for three nights didn’t seem to help all that much.

“What it means, I’m not clear,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi told his colleagues during an online Emergency Management meeting Monday morning.

County Attorney Bob Shillinger was able to clarify some issues, but he acknowledged the language in the governor’s order is confusing.

“It’s a model of clarity, not,” Shillinger said.

DeSantis’ order allows stand-alone bars, nightclubs and strip clubs to open. It allows restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity and also requires municipalities to justify their local restrictions not allowing establishments to open at 100 percent.

Shillinger said this means that Keys restaurants are allowed to fully reopen because the county did not have a restaurant capacity ordinance separate from the state’s 50-percent capacity cap.

“As of now, they’re allowed to be open at 100 percent,” he said.

Monroe County still has an indoor mask requirement in place, but because of DeSantis’ order, it can not be enforced against individuals not wearing a face covering, only against the business. Those businesses, however, can deny entry to anyone not wearing masks.

Key West officials were also still reviewing the order on Monday.

“As it looks now, we have an emergency mask ordinance in place in Key West, but have no means to enforce it on individuals,” said city spokeswoman Alyson Crean.

Key West had a stricter mask ordinance that until recently had required people to wear them outdoors even if they can social distance.

City commissioners, though, decided that if you can social distance outside, you don’t need the mask.

In a news release put out Monday morning, the city strongly encouraged people to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

“The city will continue to respond to businesses that call when individuals refuse to leave after failing to follow the businesses’ reasonable requests,” the release stated.

Monroe County’s positive rate for the novel coronavirus continues to fall, and the island chain’s numbers never came close to its immediate neighbor to the north, Miami-Dade County.

As of Monday, 1,835 people had tested positive in the Keys since the pandemic started in late winter and early spring. Twenty-two people in Monroe died from the disease.

Dade, meanwhile, has a total of nearly 170,000 cases and 3,228 dead, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Events like a busy Labor Day weekend and the reopening of face-to-face public school learning haven’t increased cases so far in the Keys as some officials feared.

Nevertheless, Bob Eadie, Monroe County administrator of the Department of Health, urged residents to continue wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed, which is likely several months away from happening.

“Wearing masks is still incredibly important, and we need to emphasize that,” Eadie said Monday. “It will take a while to get everyone vaccinated.”

Many Key West restaurants and bars took to social media over the weekend to declare staff will continue to wear masks and asking customers to as well. So did a nail salon, a kayak rental place and a bicycle shop.

“If you are against mask wearing or think COVID-19 is a hoax, then my bar is not a good fit for you,” posted Barry Geary, who owns Shanna Key Irish Pub and Grill.

The Courthouse Deli posted that it will still require people to wear masks in order to enter.

“For those who don’t want to wear a mask — we have delivery and take-out window options,” the deli added.

The restaurant Azur also announced it would “stay the course with distancing and masking,” in a Facebook post.

“Please be prepared to wear your mask when moving about the restaurant,” the business posted.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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