County Mayor Heather Carruthers May 22nd Facebook COVID-19 Q&A

On May 22nd County Mayor Heather Carruthers conducted another COVID-19 Q&A on Facebook Live. For readers who do not have Facebook accounts or who have not visited the Mayor’s Facebook page recently we have captured the video above and transcribed some of the highlights below:

Opening Statement:

“A lot has happened in the last week and a half and as you all know the checkpoint is going to be coming down on June 1. From the beginning when we first started talking about how we were going to reopen we were going to schedule this on a series of metrics. And those metrics included things like how many hospitalizations we had, the number of increased – the number of new cases we would have as a regular basis in our country, what was going on in the counties to our north both both in terms of their case loads, their hospitalizations, as well as the actions that they were taking in terms of opening up. So in the last week and a half – the last couple of weeks – we have seen a decline in new cases in Monroe County with one exception and the cases that we have seen in Monroe County have – by and large – been confined – sadly – to an assisted living facility in the Upper Keys. Other than that there have only been – I think the last single case was almost two weeks ago now. So our department of health believes from a health perspective starting to get back to whatever our new normal is is the right thing to do. We are also seeing hospitalizations decline on the mainland and the new case load is – I think they’re running at about 6% of people who are tested are testing positive. The statewide goal is to have anything under 10%. So they are well under that. Their hospitalizations have also declined. Palm Beach opened its beaches on Monday of this week. Broward is opening its beaches on Tuesday. Miami -Dade is opening its beaches and all its beach hotels on June 1st as well. All of these things combined along with increased capability for testing – I think the department of health on Thursday released its press release showing where we were with testing with the increased capacity for contact tracing utilizing not just department of health staff but also our emergency management staff. That starts to give us some level of comfort that should we start to see a surge we can address it. We have no hospitalizations regarding COVID-19 right now. We have had the opportunity to increase our supplies of personal protective equipment throughout the county. Our hospitals have all developed protocols so that they can isolate people who may be infected with the virus. In fact, anyone who is going into the hospitals for any kind of procedure is tested before those procedures proceed. So, we have all of our plans in place. You know it would be great if we could just continue to be our own little community – our own set of islands – not being connected to the rest of the world. If we could afford to live like that but we’re seeing a real stress on our economy as well and unfortunately a lot of the assistance from the both the state and the federal government that should have been flowing and that has been approved is not reaching the pockets of the people who need it here. At some point we need to figure out how to live with this virus and given that we have managed to contain it to very low levels within our county, given that we seem to be in a place right now where we’re prepared should we see any uptick in cases, considering what’s happening in the rest of the state, this is the time to start making those steps to getting back to normal. But it’s not going to be the normal that you’re used to. Masks are still going to be required when you’re outside of your home and in any kind of business or in congregate environment. We’re still telling you that it’s safe to maintain at least six feet distance between you and someone not in your immediate family or your immediate circle. In fact, we are probably going to require that you have a mask on you at all times even when you’re going for a bike ride. Doesn’t mean you have to wear it but you have to have it in case you encounter some situation where a mask would be required. So that’s where we are right now. For all of us these last weeks – two and a half months – have been extremely stressful and I know that there have been opinions on both sides. You know we’re overreaching and we’re not reaching far enough. We have to come together now. We need to continue to live our lives in a safe a way as possible and that’s going to require all of us to have personal responsibility. And that persona responsibility includes washing your hands, wearing your mask when you go to a store, maintaining that physical distance and being kind to each other. So I hope that we can all pull together and move to this next phase of living with coronavirus and I also hope and I’m sure we all do – hope and pray that pretty soon we’ll have a vaccine so we can get back to living a little even more normally than our new normal.”

When will the governor move to Phase 2 and when will bars open?

“It’s an interesting question and I don’t have an answer for that. I asked that very question this morning: Does anybody have any intelligence on when the governor is going to move to that next phase or when he’s going to start letting bars open. I do know and this is part of what’s been confusing through this whole thing. Apparently, the Department of Business Regulation has told breweries that they are entitled to now begin service if they have a particular way of delivering the beer. We don’t know what that means. It doesn’t actually seem fair, so we don’t know if DBPR is speaking with the governor’s office. This is some of the confusion that we continue to get. So, to answer the question, I don’t have a date yet. We’re anxiously awaiting and trying to figure out what the next phase is going to be. I’m guessing it might not be as soon as we think since our big counties are really just going to be opening around the same time that we are. I would imagine that we’re going to wait and see how that goes before he allows bars to be opened again.

If we do get an uptick in cases after we open on June 1 what is the process for potentially having to reclose and could a checkpoint go back in?

That’s always a question and honestly that’s one of the things we’re hoping to preserve is the ability to reinstate a checkpoint if that becomes necessary. To answer the question about what will trigger a close down. That really depends on where it is, how widespread it is… In other words, it could be confined to one community, one Key. It could be confined perhaps to one hotel. The outbreak that we have in the Upper Keys is confined to one assisted living facility. So that’s why we are investing in having contact tracers here – to make sure that it doesn’t spread. So, we will have the option to – sadly – tell businesses that they can’t operate again. The state of emergency is not going away. People are still required to carry a mask wherever they go and wear it when they’re in public spaces. They’re still required to take all those precautions. And businesses are asked to step up and ensure that their patrons take those precautions as well. So, we look at hospitalizations. We look at the rate of new cases and we look at the geography and where the people who have those cases may have reacted with others. All those things will go into whether or not we have to step back and start to close things down again.”

Vacation Rentals, did we submit the plans?

“Yes, we did submit it. We expect an answer quickly. We submitted it yesterday. We do not have a response yet. But I imagine that the latest will be Tuesday that we’ll get a response because they’ve been turning these around pretty quickly. We patterned ours after some that we knew were already approved. In terms of the basic procedure that vacation rentals are supposed to follow – one is that they’re asked to avoid taking reservations from hot spot areas as the governor has defined them and right now he’s defined those hot spot areas as 4 states: Louisiana, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. We don’t know if that will change over time. The metric is any area, any state that has more than 700 cases per 100,000 in population is considered a hot spot. What we don’t know yet is does that mean cumulative cases over time or cases at a point in time and who’s doing that calculation. That’s a state directive. So, that’s one of them. The other is increased cleaning protocols. You know you don’t leave extra pillows and things in a vacation rental. You take those out. The cleaning staff that goes in has to follow the cleaning regulations of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. You can find all of those details in the press release that went out this morning. It’s also on the County’s Facebook page. Also, you’ll find links to the CDC guidelines that you’re required to follow. So, all those things have to be in place so that we can maintain control over the spread of this virus. Also, it even covers the cleaning staff that comes in. They have to stay six feet apart. They have to wear gloves. They have to wear masks. All those kinds of things. So, we’re following medical protocols as well as state guidelines and hopefully we’ll get that approved within the next couple of days.” (The plan was approved on Friday May 22nd. CLICK HERE to view the plan.)

The 50% rule for hotels: How will that be enforced. Does it apply to vacation rentals.

“The 50% rule is less a rule than a guideline. We don’t really expect that we’re going to have a tremendous influx of long-term visitors or even hotel guests immediately – partially because the hotels in the rest of the state are open – including Miami Beach – and partially because the traveling public is still a little skittish about traveling. But we will encourage people between the restrictions on visitors from hot spots, on the increased sanitation procedures and simply the attitude of the traveling public we don’t expect that we will exceed that 50% and I would encourage businesses – particularly the hotels to try to keep their occupancies low at least in this first week or two because your staffs are going to have new procedures in terms of cleaning and distancing and how you check people in and check people out. You know touchless checkins – all these things. So, it’s going to take your staffs awhile to get used to those protocols as well. So, again, it’s less of a rule and more of a guideline that I think is going to be easily met in the first couple of weeks.”

Masks: How long will that last, why is it mandatory? Why not just a guideline like other places?

“Part of the reason we don’t have it as just a guideline as other places is because we are a very fluid community down here. We are not a small county in the center of Florida that doesn’t have a tremendous amount of tourism and a tremendous amount of travel. And frankly not just from non-residents but even our residents are -you know we like to get around. So, that’s why it will be a requirement to carry a mask with you and to wear a mask in indoor spaces and those kinds of areas. You know there’s a very interesting diagram going around. It shows two people standing next to each other. Neither of them wearing pants and one of them pees on the other and it says look – this guy peed on you – everybody’s getting sick. The next one is you’re wearing pants – he pees on you – you’re going to still get a little – it’s going to be a little disgusting because it’s still going to hit your clothes and some of its going to sink through. But if both of you are wearing pants – especially the guy who pees – it’s not going to get on you. That’s why you wear masks. It’s exactly the same concept. When you both are wearing masks whether you’re the sneezer or the sneezee – you will not be exposed to the same extent to the virus. That’s why it’s important. And it’s also important because this thing is asymptomatic. The statistics are all over the place but as much as 80% of the people who actually are carrying and shedding the virus show no symptoms. So, that’s why it’s important. Until we have a vaccine and until we get this under control and developed significant herd immunity that we wear our masks.” (The sheriff will have the authority to enforce the rule.)

Testing: How is it being ramped up – where?

“We’ve had a testing and health task force in place for about two and a half, three weeks now. That’s led by the department of health and also includes some leading physicians throughout the Keys and they have been working on setting up new sites to be tested. And you can find that – I know I think we just posted it on my County Commissioner Facebook page, its on the Monroe County Facebook page. From the department of health they sent out a press release last Thursday the 14th that shows all the places that you can get tested and what those protocols are. There are two different kinds of tests: There’s a viral test that tells you if you actively are carrying the virus and there’s an antibody test that’s supposed to tell you if you have been exposed and carried the virus. The science is not conclusive about whether the antibody test makes you continually immune from this virus or not – they’re still looking into that – but even if you had the antibody test chances are you’re going to want to get the viral test because you can test positive – I think – for the antibodies now and still be actively shedding the virus. So, it’s not as simple as we think – it’s complicated. If you feel that you’ve been exposed to someone or near someone who is likely to be carrying the virus you’ll be able to get tested. If you’re not feeling well – shortness of breath, all of the signs that are on the website – then you can get tested as well.” CLICK HERE to find out where to get tested.

Locally, can our hospitals handle a surge?

“Yes, our hospitals are prepared for a Phase 1 and Phase 2 surges. They haven’t seen either, but they have specific protocols in place right now where they can isolate people. They’ve got – I think Lower Keys has 10 ICU beds and they have other areas that – their whole hospital is set up so that there’s a red, yellow, and green zones based on potential level of contamination. They’re testing everyone that comes in there, really limiting visitation. So, yes the hospitals are prepared.”

Why did the checkpoint go up?

“Yes, the checkpoint went up because Miami-Dade was – there’s a number of reasons – Miami-Dade had a higher infection rate than we did and there’s an awful lot of tourism that goes on – both day trippers as well as overnight stays between the Upper Keys and Miami-Dade in particular. That was part of it. There was another issue – if you remember – in the beginning days of this everybody was hoarding everything. So, we had a lot of folks from the mainland who were coming into the Keys and wiping out all of our supplies. Those kinds of reasons. It was to contain the spread from those individuals who did not have to be here. Remember there was a safer at home order. Leisure travel was supposed to end. Non-essential travel was not supposed to be going on.  So, that’s why the checkpoint went up – to put a stop to non-essential travel to try to keep the virus outside of our borders and I don’t think that there’s a medical professional or probably a resident in the Keys who would say that that was not extremely instrumental in us being able to maintain a very low infection rate and to flatten the curve. We had the flattest curve in the state for the longest period of time.”

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