Key West toughens up its mask law

Wear the mask when in public. Period.

Key West city commissioners said that’s the new law on the island as they, once again, made a local mask ordinance tougher at a special meeting on Thursday morning.

The vote was 7-0.

The retooled law says everyone over age 6 must wear face coverings in public — whether or not they can social distance — and they must carry a mask with them when outside their homes.

“The operator and/or employee of a business establishment shall ensure that every individual in that establishment complies with this ordinance,” the amended ordinance states.

The commission had loosened its mask rules in September, relaxing the outside rule to only require masks if people can’t socially distance.

But city leaders said that didn’t work. And the island is gearing up for its holiday season, when tourists flock to the Southernmost City and snowbirds return.

The new ordinance carries civil and criminal penalties, including fines of up to $500. But Gov. Ron DeSantis, in an order last month, prohibited municipalities from collecting fines from people violating COVID-19 restrictions.

On Sept. 25, DeSantis signed a “right to work” executive order, ending state and some local COVID restrictions.

That led Miami-Dade County to stop collecting mask fines and to reopen its bars and nightclubs. The county successfully fought to keep its midnight curfew in effect, despite an initial circuit court opinion that sided with the strip club Tootsies in its argument that the county curfew violated the state executive order.

Key West, though, recently announced it will continue to issue citations and collect the fines later, whenever the governor’s order expires.

On Wednesday, mayors of five South Florida cities met to ask DeSantis for a statewide mask requirement and allow local governments to impose COVID restrictions, among other requests related to COVID-19.

Positive cases are rising steeply and it is spreading everywhere,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. “We can’t continue the way we’re going.”

Key West’s mask rules are stricter than Monroe County’s. The county’sordinance requires masks be worn outside when social distancing can’t be maintained.

But Key West is in a different place because the city is filled with visitors, leaders have said.

And lately, Duval Street has been packed on weekends.

“Sometimes I hear we’re doubling our population every weekend,” City Manager Greg Veliz said. “Obviously, we are not your typical community of 20-some thousand people.”

“What I see is chaos,” said Jim Young, code compliance director for Key West, who has tested positive for COVID-19. “It’s very chaotic, especially on weekends. I’ve been physically assaulted, one of my code officers was spat on. One was bit. A police officer was bit.”

Young spoke to the City Commission remotely on Tuesday. The governor’s order has made it difficult to enforce Key West’s mask rules, Young said.

“That cut our legs out from under us trying to protect our community,” he said.

The tougher mask law is sorely needed as COVID-19 cases rise in the Keys, Mayor Teri Johnston said.

“One ordinance is not going to cure COVID,” Johnston said Thursday. “This is a single step that we are taking today in order to protect our entire community and continue our economic recovery.”

Monroe County on Thursday confirmed 73 additional cases and no new deaths. On Friday, the county reported 99 new cases. The county has a known total of 3,064 cases and holds at 25 deaths.

Veliz said the city will add police officers to Duval Street to better enforce the mask ordinance.

Several exceptions still exist in the mask ordinance, however, including when people are seated at a restaurant or bar, in their cars, working out at a gym or exchanging vows at a wedding.

The city, where the economy relies on tourism, also needs to step up its messaging to visitors, said City Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover.

“It needs to be, ‘Wear your damn mask,’” Hoover said. “It needs to be front and center now.”

The newly amended ordinance is like hitting the reset button when it comes to wearing masks in Key West, said City Commissioner Greg Davila. But he admitted some residents won’t like it.

“I’m going to have a hard time explaining to my constituents they need to wear a mask when walking their dog and no one else is around,” Davila said.

Joe Walsh, who owns several restaurants downtown that have been cited by code compliance for mask violations, said the masks don’t stop infection.

“Masks provide an artificial feeling of safety for people,” Walsh said. “We have a, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell policy’ as far as masking.”

Mark Gambuzza, of the Uva Key West wine shop, said businesses should adhere to the mask ordinance so the city can keep attracting tourists who are questioning whether to visit.

“Better to make some money than no money,” Gambuzza said. “Let’s put the damn mask on.”

Some locals said the new mask ordinance is a matter of urgency.

“It is time to stop pussyfooting around this issue,” said resident Christine Russell, 65. “If you don’t get tough you’re going to have hell to pay later. You better get creative and you better do it now.”

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.

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