County Mayor Heather Carruthers held another COVID-19 Facebook Live Q&A this week. Below are some highlights. Full video above.
Wearing a mask is recommended yet there are dedicated phone numbers to report people who are not wearing masks and people could be jailed or fined if they’re not. Can you explain the difference between the County and City rules and then some of the requirements for masks?
“Sure. I’m going to go back a little bit to give everybody a little bit of background. We had an emergency directive that did require masks within the County. That was before the Governor’s latest order that basically rescinded many of the restrictions that we had in place. To be consistent with that Governor’s order we wanted to take a look at what our restrictions were, and we also wanted to say if we’re going to be moving forward, perhaps we should have an ordinance rather than an emergency directive. And that’s for two reasons. An ordinance gives you different ways to enforce any kind of restriction. And the second reason is that an ordinance is less subject to legal challenge. So, for those reasons we had on an agenda – it gets even a little more complicated but – we had already a scheduled closed session meeting to deal with some legal issues – some legal challenges – not specifically related to COVID-19 but other items. On June 4th we had that meeting. On that meeting we added a discussion to determine how we were going to move forward with our requirements regarding things like masks. Because it was a special meeting we needed to have 4 out of 5 commissioners approve any change. And that was because this was all done very quickly because of changes that came out of the state and you have to have a certain amount of time when you notice anything that’s going to be voted on by the commission. So, when you don’t have that sufficient notice time you have to have at least 4/5’s vote to be able to make a change. So, at that meeting we tried to pass an ordinance that would continue to mandate the wearing of masks in unincorporated Monroe County, throughout Monroe County, inside public establishments. Masks would not be required when you’re outside and you can maintain a physical distance of at least six feet. They’re not required when you take your dog for a walk or go for a bike ride. But we felt up until then that having masks inside of public establishments: restaurants when you’re not eating, grocery stores, pharmacies, public buildings – was the safest thing to do. We voted on that on June 4th and unfortunately, we did not get 4 votes. We had a 3-2 vote. We are going to be reconsidering that on June 17th for the County. In the meantime, masks inside public establishments within unincorporated Monroe County and also now within Islamorada and Marathon and Layton are strongly recommended though not required. Now, within the City of Key West and also, as of yesterday morning, in the City of Key Colony Beach masks are required inside public establishments. So, it can be a little bit confusing. We are revisiting this again on June 17th. I plan to call the item at 1:30 in the afternoon. It’s going to be a Zoom meeting. If people want to weigh in ahead of time or during that meeting that would be the time to do it. Personally, I still believe that having mandatory mask requirements provides our business owners with some relief. In other words, the onus is not solely on them to determine whether people should wear masks or not. Right now a business, as a private enterprise, can still require a mask but push can come to shove and having the government – not that we like to do this – but having the government be the backstop to allow our businesses be able to say – “masks are required” I think supports our business community rather than hinders it. Anyway, we’ll be having that discussion this coming Wednesday at 1:30 and I encourage everybody to share your views beforehand.”
Will Monroe County be helping people who lost work during the shutdown of COVID-19 with possibly a discount on their property taxes? What is your outlook for the upcoming budget season and property taxes?
“Clearly the County was hit like everybody else by this COVID-19. Much of our revenue – a good part of our revenue – comes from sales taxes that we simply weren’t collecting. I can tell you that we are going to be having an austerity budget this coming year. I for one – and again I’m just one of five people – will not be recommending any increase in taxes. In fact, this might be a year where we’ll have to come in below rollback so that the tax rate will actually be less than It was previously. I don’t know legally what we can do to just give a discount on taxes. I’ve actually been trying to walk down that path for affordable housing and much of this is constrained by state statute not by local statute. I can also tell that I was – just before I got on this call – on a Zoom meeting with some of our non-profits as well as with staff. There will now be some money coming in to the County through the CARES Act that can help us offset expenses related to COVID-19 and eventually that would also mean potentially rental assistance for those folks who have not been able to pay their rent for the last couple of months. So, there can be some relief. In terms of just saying property taxes aren’t due that’s not going to be an option. But we will not be increasing your property taxes next year and I’m going to work to control them and actually lower them. There are going to be some tough decisions that we’re going to have to make. Some plans that we had for enhancements to services and capital improvements that we’re just going to have to postpone until we can get ourselves back together – so that’s where we are there. I can’t give you a number but that’s the intention.”
When will hotels open at full capacity?
“Sure, I think when we originally talked about that – well first, it’s not mandatory – it’s a recommendation that hotels operate at 50% capacity and that was going to be until June 15th. So, the reason that we did that was twofold: Because we want to see how opening up starts to impact our numbers here, the second reason is to give the hotels the ability to get used to all of the new sanitation procedures that are going to be required and have been required. So, hotels – it was recommended that they maintain their occupancy at 50% or less until June 15th and then it’s up to them to run their businesses the way they see fit.”
Update on the jail cases?
“The jail is overseen by Sheriff Rick Ramsay who is a separately elected constitutional officer. We did have two cases in the jail. They were staff – staff that commutes from the mainland. There’s been a lot more testing going on at the jail and so far, it seems that we have it under control. The individuals who tested positive are no longer working at the jail. They’re home self-isolating. That doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their jobs. It just means that they’ve been told to stay away until this passes. That’s what I can tell you. So far, we’ve had no positives among the inmates or the rest of the staff.
Why do you have to wait until the June 17th meeting to decide on making masks mandatory – why can’t you do it sooner?
“Right. The reason is because there are statutory requirements for public notice and it has to do with how many days before you talk about an item that’s going to be voted on you let the public know that you’re going to be voting on that item. So, between June 4th and June 17th there weren’t enough days to provide public notice such that we would be required to have at least a 4/5ths vote. So, the way the statute is, is if you don’t give people – if you don’t give the public enough notice that you’re going to be talking about something – you have to have to have a supermajority in favor of any vote. That’s why the vote failed on June 4th. Because even if Commissioner Rice, who on the radio this morning said he’s going to be supporting mandatory mask wearing – even if he had changed his vote on say June 7th or June 10th it would not have made a difference because we still would have been required to have a supermajority or 4/5ths vote. So that vote comes up again on June 17th when we just have to have a simple majority which is 3 out of 5 vote in favor of making masks mandatory in public establishments.”
Will the TDC potentially be amending their advertising to mention more public safety considerations?
“I you take a look at the TDC’s Fla-Keys.com website there’s a big banner right across the top of it that says: “These are the guidelines for COVID-19.” The guidelines include social distancing and wearing your mask and click here for more details and it will bring you to a page that tells you about all the CDC recommendations and what the requirements are in the County. The TDC has also been working with us to create advertising – to create display ads that say, “stay safe” “wear masks” “social distance” and “wash your hands” and that’s going to be going up at all the airports, at all the bus stations. We’re actually looking at doing banners that will be all along US1 as people drive in, in the Upper Keys, so that they know that they need to continue to do this. The ads that they’re running now talk about things like wearing masks. They talk about open spaces. They are not talking about congregating in large numbers. So, the TDC has significantly changed its messaging throughout this and they have been trying to work with the County and provide us with imagery and messaging and media where we can get that message out.”
“You can find information about this and everything on our website which is monroecounty-fl.gov/covid-19. You can find all this information. And yes, the United Way Florida Keys Outreach Coalition is working on issues related to rental assistance. As I think I mentioned a while ago, some CARES Act money, as of last night, literally like 7:30 we finally got the scoop on this – some CARES Act money is going to be finally coming down to the County and we’ll be able to – with our social services department – potentially put together some rental assistance programs as well. Is it going to be sufficient? Probably not. But we’re going to do whatever we can to get as much money out there in as many ways as is possible.”
Hospitals: What will happen with our smaller hospitals down here?
“Our hospitals, honestly, have taken the time since we first started – since we first declared the emergency on March 15th – to stock up on needed supplies. They’ve increased their available PPE’s. They’ve also set up systems on how to deal with this. They’re ready for Level 1 and Level 2 surges. Right now, there’s nobody in the hospital – nobody in the Lower Keys hospital that’s got COVID-19. I don’t believe there’s anyone in Baptist right now – there may be one person that’s got it. The hospitals say that they’re ready for Level 1 and Level 2 surges. If it exceeds that that’s when we start calling in some of our state and federal partners to set up field hospitals and do that kind of work. But our emergency management team has a whole protocol for how to meet those needs as time goes by. But as of today, the hospitals are prepared for Level 1 and Level 2 surges. I can tell you that Lower Keys for instance has a red, yellow, and green system throughout the hospital. Red means it’s complete isolation. Yellow means we’re looking at these folks – they might be. Green means fine. They have amended their visitation policies and everyone’s taking all precautions to ensure that we can meet the need. And when we start to see that some of our – that the hospitals are unable to deal with this – that’s when we’re going to have to take a look at some of the restricted measures we originally had and see what we need to do to roll some of those back which we hope we don’t get to which is why it’s important for everybody to wear your mask.”
Any thoughts of shutting down again if the numbers were to jump?
“You know I certainly hope that we do not get to that point but I’m not going to say that I want to take any tool out of our toolkit right now. If we get to a position where the numbers are beyond our hospitals’ ability to deal them that’s something we will have to take a look at.”
How will the County enforce the mandatory mask rules if they are enacted?
“That’s one of the benefits of having an ordinance here. It will allow code enforcement to enforce the rules. It will also allow us to call on law enforcement – on the Sheriff and in the City of Key West you could also call on the police department if the people are not abiding by the rules. Even under the Governor’s directives people who violate a lot of the restrictions are subject to at least a $500 and up to 60 days in jail. Nobody wants to do that. So, just everybody do the right thing.”
What are the three most important issues going forward as Mayor that you would like to see addressed?
“Well, you know things have changed obviously since this COVID. The first thing that we have to take a look at is our budget and how we are going to manage the budget in such a way that we continue to be able to provide a way to provide the essential services but not overburden our taxpayers. And the workforce housing continues to be an issue. Part of the reason that we’re having a problem right now is that we have people who are paying way too much for rent and as much stimulus as we could give them it may not even be enough to make them be able to afford to catch up without them being evicted when this is over. That’s an ongoing concern for me. And another major concern is how we, as a community, are going to respond to issues related to climate change and sea level rise. It’s a fact of life. We’re seeing impacts already. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of will and investment for us to be able to continue to maintain our way of life here which we all want to do because – hey – we live in Paradise and we want to stay here.”
True or False did the threat of the possible lawsuit force the removal of the checkpoints?
“No. That’s false. Look you guys have to remember at the point when the checkpoint was removed the Governor had lessened his restrictions throughout the state. We had gone weeks with only seeing one maybe two cases. We didn’t have any hospitalizations. So, we didn’t really have the evidence that said we needed to maintain it and those are the things that drove that decision.”
If the masks were to become mandatory again, what do you say to the people who potentially can’t wear masks in public places?
“Well we have spoken with ADA specialists about this kind of issue. What I would say is that people who can’t wear masks in public spaces they need to make other accommodations. Because remember the mask is not only so that you don’t catch it but it’s so that you don’t inadvertently give it. Diseases shed easily and there’s a lot of asymptomatic folks out there. If you cannot wear a mask the businesses that you would go to should be asked to make special accommodations for you. For instance, deliver your groceries or run out to your car and give you your groceries. Those kinds of things. Or have somebody else do it for you. There are few cases of people who actually can’t wear masks but if you cannot wear a mask for some underlying medical issue then talk to folks who can help you make accommodations to get your needs met.”
More info on the federal aid for unemployment? Some people were getting and then it stopped coming. Shouldn’t it go through July 31st.
“You should be able to get the $600 federal supplement through July.” Go to floridajobs.org for more information.
Thoughts on Fantasy Fest and cruise ships?
“Fantasy Fest: The City is going to be taking a look at how we manage the 4th of July before they make a decision on Fantasy Fest. I know some people are optimistic that we could be able to do Fantasy Fest. Some are not so optimistic. I will say this, if there’s one event where you know people will at least wear masks – maybe nothing else – it would be Fantasy Fest. It’s really going to depend on where we are both within County and nationally in terms of our rates of infection and especially hospitalization and the severity of the disease and how we can actually create mechanisms so that people can stay safe and still party. So that’s the answer about Fantasy Fest.”
“Cruise ships: Again, that’s not within our jurisdiction. Me personally I think that we need to take a look at the volume that we get and the quality of the cruise ships. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement there. We have a very sensitive environment. I think the people of the City of Key West were pretty clear when 71% of them voted against a study to even consider dredging the harbor. We’re a small community. We’re not a big island. We’re not Hawaii. You know, we’re small. I think we do need to have a better way to manage the number of people who get off cruise ships and the number of cruise ships that come here every year.”