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Could The Keys Close Again? Numbers Spiking On Island Chain

Banners about coronavirus precautions are going up along the Overseas Highway and in Key West.

Spiking coronavirus numbers in the Florida Keys are causing consternation among public officials, and questions about whether the county will once again close to visitors.

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"We were fortunate for the time we had the checkpoint up and you saw what the results were. We did a really good job. The community was behind it," Bob Eadie, administrator of the Monroe County office of the state Department of Health, said at an emergency management update meeting on Monday.

"Now it's like with the checkpoint off, it's almost like it's business as it used to be. And the thing is that it's not. We are really in the position now of what are we going to do because we are teetering on the edge of having a real huge outbreak."

Eadie cited behavior at a pool at Dante's bar and restaurant in Key West over the weekend.

"People weren't quite shoulder-to-shoulder, but they almost were. No mask, no social distancing."

Capt. David Dipre of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gave a similar update about the waters.

"With boaters in the Upper Keys, the majority of which are out-of-towners on the weekends, there is almost no social distancing going on," he said. "There's no masks or anything like that."

Andy Newman, spokesman for the county's tourism agency, said he had spoken with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association about increasing messaging to tourists about safety measures.

"People have got to get on the stick here and lead by example in terms of masking and social distancing, because I've got several reports with regards to hotels in the Middle and the Upper Keys that it didn't happen in pools and public places. And it's just got to happen," he said.

The Tourist Development Council has suspended paid advertising for the Keys as a destination for two weeks, starting Wednesday. It has also created 120 banners about safety measures that will hang along the Overseas Highway and throughout Key West.

The city of Key West is having "a real hard time" enforcing restrictions on serving alcohol since the bars were ordered to close and offer takeout service on Friday, City Manager Greg Veliz said.

"People are being served at bars and spilling out onto the street," he said. "And then the party happens on the sidewalk."

Officials are hearing questions and calls to close down the Keys again and reinstate the checkpoints.

County Administrator Roman Gastesi said he thought that was unlikely — unless hospitalizations in the county rise sharply. There are three small hospitals in the Keys and one of them is a four-bed temporary facility.

Eadie said he couldn't provide a threshold number that would trigger a recommendation to shut down tourism again.

"But keep in mind how important it is that the number of ICU beds are limited in the Keys. Our hospitalization capacity is limited," he said. "So it won't take too much before we're starting to overload our system and it won't take too much until we are overwhelmed at that. "

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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