Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers conducted another Facebook Live COVID-19 Q&A today. She addressed many of residents’ concerns and spoke specifically about when and how the County will make decisions on “opening up” the Keys. You can watch the full video above. We have also transcribed a good portion of what was said for you below:
Planning on Opening Back Up?
“First, our primary goal is the safety and health of our residents and that will continue to be the case. I’m not happy with this phrase “opening up” because it implies suddenly we’re going to open the doors and everything’s going to be back to normal and that’s simply not the case. As time goes on and we really begin to analyze the data and take a scientific approach to this, there may be certain restrictions that we have placed on locals that we might be able to loosen, but we don’t have any intention of opening up until this thing is under control, not just within our county, but within our neighboring counties and within those areas that essentially are feeder markets for the destination. It is going to be tougher as this goes on and everybody gets a little more anxious. You know we have so many problems with things like the unemployment system right now. It is tougher and there is going to be a lot of pressure for us to “open up”. But again, our primary focus is on the health and safety of the folks who live here and we intend to hold the line as long as legally possible.”
Hospitals and surge plans?
“As we speak right now there’s plenty of capacity at the hospitals. The hospitals tell us they’re ready for both phase 1 and phase 2 surges and they haven’t seen either of those. If you look at the statistics that the health department puts out everyday, as of last evening it reported that there were 9 hospitalizations. But the important thing to remember is that those are not people who are currently in the hospital. That’s the number of people who have been hospitalized since the beginning of this. And sadly three of those people have passed away. Four have been released. So we currently only have two people in the hospital as a result of COVID-19. And there’s plenty of capacity. We have well over a hundred beds throughout the county to deal with this issue. And our emergency managers also have contingency plans if for some unknown reason that we exceed that capacity. But we’re going to be fine.”
Governor DeSantis – opening up sooner rather than later. Need to follow Governor’s directions?
“So far the Governor has given local jurisdictions the ability to have tighter restrictions than the state does and we hope that that continues. Certainly the evidence of the way we have been able to keep our rates down compared to other areas is a testament to the fact that what we’re doing works. And what we’re doing includes all the screening at the airports, cutting down of bus traffic and certainly the checkpoint on the [18-Mile] Stretch and on Card Sound Road. Certainly I think that’s evidence to allow us to convince the Governor to allow us to continue our protective measures until we feel locally that we would not be impacted by not removing them.”
Hotels Opening Up?
“We are not recommending any hotels open up for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to predict this but right now its looking like this thing won’t peak in our region until the first or second week of May. So, we’re not having any conversations about relaxing the visitor restrictions at this point.”
Current Infection Cases?
“We have had 66 cases here in the Keys. 6o of those are residents. Only 6 of them have been visitors and that number has not changed, I don’t think, in the last two weeks. What’s important to remember is that a little over 30 of those folks have recovered. I think we have a little over 30 active cases right now. But the health department doesn’t actually say “recovered” and part of the reason is because this virus is so new that we are not yet comfortable understanding exactly what the longterm impacts of this might be. So, we need to get antibody tests and the health department is working on that. We also need to get rapid tests for current carriers. The health department’s working on that. It seems that we are getting one or two additional cases every day or two. So, we are not seeing those huge spikes in cases that other areas are seeing.”
Unemployment compensation issues with the state?
“I wish I had answers for you on that. The state is completely overwhelmed and frankly the system they designed was not particularly effective. I don’t know what the reasons are for that and I’m not going to speculate. But all I can say is keep trying. Sometimes paper is the way to go. You can pick up paper applications in front of all of our government buildings and in front of our libraries. I hear that as of yesterday that 23,000 unemployment checks had gone out – so at least they’re starting. That’s just a drop in the bucket for the hundreds of thousands of applications that are being processed. But they simply did not have enough staff and they did not have an adequate system to process this. They may not be able to tell you where your application is. I know some folks, they tried this Connect system and they didn’t get through on that and they tried this new system and then they tried paper applications. I would suggest you only apply in one of those ways and then if two weeks go by – and I understand that is a long time – and you haven’t gotten any response, you can maybe try a different method. Take a look at our website because there are a series of links there where you can go to see if your application has been processed, to see where you are in terms of starting to get your unemployment checks. I do know they’re going to stop doing- you know you used to have to every two weeks check in with the unemployment system and tell them how you were doing in your job search – that has been waived in this crisis.”
How the County is supporting law enforcement
“Running this checkpoint takes a lot of person power and it’s pretty grueling work because you’re out there in the sun and you’re often dealing with people who are not particularly happy to be told that this is not the time for them to visit the Keys. So, the Sheriff’s Department is definitely carrying the water on this but the County has provided four or six of public works people who are assisting up there and every municipality is providing personnel so the burden is not solely on the Sheriff’s Department.”
Beaches reopening for residents?
“This is something that we are going to be looking at in the coming weeks. I can tell you that our concern about opening any beaches in the Keys before the beaches on the mainland are open is that we already have people trying to be very clever about trying to get in through the checkpoint. We’ve uncovered several different sort of schemes that we’ve been effective at stopping – in terms of counterfeit stickers and that kind of thing. We don’t want to open up any of our amenities until those same amenities are on the mainland because we don’t want to invite people from hot spots into the Keys to go to the beach or use our parks. So just one other note about that: We are coordinating with the Mayors of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. I have a call with them at 1:00 today. We have made them aware that we are not going to be the first ones to do any of this opening and we intend to maintain our checkpoint.”
Testing – Do we have enough tests down here for people? What is the testing process?
“That’s really a question for the health department but from what I understand – and I listened to [Dr.] Jack Norris this morning on the radio as well – it seems that there are a sufficient number of tests right now because they’re not seeing a lot of new people coming forward and saying, ‘Hey, I think I have the symptoms or I think I’ve been exposed.’ That said, we do need to broaden the testing if we’re ever going to get back to anything normal or whatever our new normal is going to be. I do know that the state is working on getting rapid testing as well as antibody testing. You know, the pin prick to tell you whether or not you’ve ever had it. And all I can tell you is that we don’t have it yet, but we’re working on it.”
Will you discuss Vacation Rentals again?
“Sure, vacation rentals are a ‘no-go’. There’s to be no vacation rentals in the Keys right now – actually in the state – the Governor passed that a couple of weeks ago. So, if you are aware of an illegal vacation rental – someone who’s in a vacation rental illegally – that means they don’t own the property – please call 1-855-432-4540. The state attorney is prosecuting. We have a number of individuals that have already been served. You know quit trying to cheat, Okay? Just play by the rules please and we’ll all be healthier.”
Can second home owners be regulated?
“That’s a tough one and the reason that’s a tough one is because the state of Florida has passed a property owner’s bill of rights that insists that a property owner must have access to utilize, maintain, enjoy their property. So, we can’t say just because you are a second home owner you can’t come in. That said, we have been trying to convince the state that the safer-at-home order means safer at one home. Just pick one and stay there. It’s the movement between these homes that is a cause for concern. So, that’s what we can do. We can prevent second home owners from giving the keys to their house to someone who doesn’t own the house. You have to prove that you are an owner if you are not a full time resident here.”
Airports – Could there be a checkpoint at the airports requiring proof of residency/ownership before leaving the airport?
“That’s a good question and I will run that up the flagpole. I think that those folks are already told that they have to self-quarantine and if they don’t own a house here where are they staying? Lodging is closed. Vacation rentals are illegal. Having said that, again, I think yesterday – or was that the day before – we had – what – four flights? Two people on each flight. We’re just not seeing a lot of folks. The people who are coming in are either locals that are returning home and in some cases they are people who have legitimate business reasons to be here including things like doing epidemiology issues. So, we do need to keep it open to some extent.”
After the County sees a peak in cases, what will the County do to start slowly open things up – doing things in reverse order?
“Well, it would be sort of in reverse order. From my perspective the first thing that we start to do is to give our residents some more liberty in terms of the kinds of amenities they can enjoy living here. Then we’re going to talk about perhaps non-essential businesses. Then we’ll talk about how does a restaurant open up? What kinds of protective measures do these entities take to make sure that we don’t continue to spread this disease. The very last thing we’re going to do in this whole process is to take down the checkpoint and stop screening passengers at the airport. So, we’re so close to Florida’s hot spot which right now is Miami-Dade and we are a destination for people from all over the world. Some of those places are still hot spots. So, we need to continue to look at what’s going on in Europe and Japan and all of the major metropolitan areas in the states before we start to really relax restrictions regarding visitors. So, I can tell you that staff – our strategic planning staff, our emergency management staff – are working on plans on how we do this over time. It’s not going to boom and things go back to normal and when I say that – even if business and enterprise does start to pick up again there are going to be some big changes and we might be living with our little masks for months if not a year or so when we go into certain places. It is going to be a new normal until we figure out exactly what this thing is and how to control it.”
What about wearing masks? Where do you have to wear those?
“You have to wear your mask when you’re inside any essential business or any place where people besides your family might congregate.
When do you not have to wear a mask?
“You don’t have to wear a mask when you’re walking your dog, or going for a swim, or riding your bike, or exercising outdoors. I’m in my back yard. I don’t need to wear a mask now. I wore my mask going into Faustos. Those are the times that you need to do that.”
“Well the marinas in unincorporated Monroe are open to residents. They are not going to be open to non-residents because it’s the same thing as driving in and staying in a hotel room. We have had a couple of folks who have tried to bring a boat in and stay here. In some cases they can do that as long as they stay on the boat for 14 days. It’s the same process.”
Thank you all for participating, for watching and being informed. We have been luckier. Partly because of our geography and our ability to control who comes into the Keys. And another reason we’ve been able to maintain a reasonable number of cases here is because you have all been doing what we have asked you to do. You’re keeping your distance. You’re using your masks and you’re not coming and going too much. And I just want to ask you to continue to do that. You know the faster we all – and frankly I mean not just those of us in the Keys I mean around the world – the faster we all do this and tamp down this particular outbreak the sooner we can get back to some life that we are more comfortable living with.”
A few more questions:
You know we’ve talked about curfews. And this is not a law enforcement issue. Curfews are really set in place when we’re worried about increases in crime and as of now we have not seen that here. So, our law enforcement folks don’t think that a curfew is necessary. You know when you have a curfew you’ve got to enforce it. Then you have more law enforcement on the streets 24 hours a day when they could be checking cars at the checkpoint or taking people’s temperature at the airport. So, our law enforcement folks don’t feel that that’s necessary and I don’t either. I think: go home at night and go to sleep.
Bridges closed to walking?
They’re not closed to walking. The fishing bridges are closed. That was a state mandate that was not ours. You should be able to – as long as you can get through it – you should be able to walk on it. Just maintain at least six feet, no big groups.
Restrictions go until April 30. When will a decision be made to extend?
“We’ll probably do that next week. I assume we’ll take another look at it. And again, all of our decisions are based on data – for the Keys as well as for our neighboring and feeder markets.”
Final Closing Remarks:
Thank you all very much. Enjoy the weekend its gonna be a hot one, I think. But it’s a beautiful one as always. Stay safe, keep your distance, wear your mask, wash your hands, and we’ll get through this together.
Thank you all very much.