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Key West increase virus restrictions

Key West is now under a city-wide mask requirement order.

Commissioners voted unanimously at a special meeting Thursday to revert back to their original mask order, which requires anyone in public to wear a mask even if they can social distance. There are 11 exceptions to the order, including when in a private car or boat, but masks must now be worn by both residents and visitors no matter where they are in the city.

Commissioners had earlier in the week discussed creating mask “zones,” five heavily-trafficked areas popular with tourists where masks would be required. However, City Attorney Shawn Smith said that a “patchwork” effort of enforcement would lead to inconsistency and confusion for police and code officers. As a result, a mask order is now in place for the entire city.

“If you are outside and do not fit one of the exceptions, you are required to wear a mask,” explained City Manager Greg Veliz. “It’s a ratcheting up of what we currently have in effect.”

“This is a bad idea. You are squandering political capital and leadership on something that will have no effect,” argued local restaurant owner Joe Walsh. “It will have a negative effect by undermining your authority.”

Several other speakers appeared at the special meeting, both in favor and against the new ordinance. Resident Tom Malone said that while many local business owners are complying with mask and other safety ordinances, the same few are not. He did not name the businesses he believes are repeat offenders; however, mask citations have been issued at most of the local restaurants owned by Walsh, including Fogarty’s, Jack Flat’s, the Waterfront Brewery and Caroline’s Cafe.

“It’s time to arrest offenders, whether it’s a bartender or a server. Arrest them on the job so people can see it,” Malone suggested, adding, “We need to get tough. We need to change our approach.”

City officials have tried different ways since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March to protect residents’ and visitors’ health while helping area business owners recover from the devastating COVID-19-related shutdown. With a vigorous business community speaking out loudly about the economic challenges they and their staff face, city commissioners have allowed changes over the summer that increased customer capacity and made exceptions for wedding planners, musicians and local sports leagues to avoid masks. However, walking that “fine line” has not benefited everyone, said Mayor Teri Johnston.

“While our numbers are looking better and better and better economically, they are looking worse and worse and worse health-wise,” she said.

Commissioners were not in agreement on the new city-wide mask requirement but voted for it because there are few other ways to convince the weekend visitors who have been crowding Duval Street to wear masks, which myriad scientific studies including from the Centers For Disease Control have said protect both the person wearing the mask, as well as the people they come into contact with. And they pointed out it’s not just visitors who are contributing to the sky-high number of COVID-19 cases. Local events, such as the Key West High School football games, are often crowded with spectators. And, while spread out in the viewing stands, some are not wearing masks.

Commissioner Billy Wardlow said he was against forcing people to wear a mask in areas where there are few or no people around. Instead, he advocated for reducing the number of flights at the Key West International Airport to lower the number of visitors. Commissioner Greg Davila said he would have a hard time explaining to his constituents they have to wear a mask at all times while outdoors.

“I will have trouble explaining they have to wear a mask while dog walking. I understand that, but we need a complete reset,” he said.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman said he was not comfortable that Monroe County health officials had not been consulted about the new mask ordinance.

“Will this mask ordinance do it alone? I highly doubt it,” he said.

However, Mayor Johnston said she and other officials are in daily contact with government health officials as well as local medical providers. While their input is useful, it is up to the commission to set policy, she said.

Several commissioners also mentioned increasing enforcement and Veliz said he is working on ways to boost the number of police and code officers on the most heavily-trafficked streets. He will be using deputized fire department staff this weekend, as well as additional police officers.

“We’re going to have 10 to 15 officers on Duval at any given time this weekend,” Veliz said. “We will enforce any areas we are called to.”

While one speaker called the commission “mask gestapos,” other business owners were more supportive of the new mask order.

“We all have to adapt. You cannot go back to business as usual … elbow to elbow,” said Mark Gambuzza, owner of Uva Wine Shoppe, 519 Fleming St. “Better to make some money than no money.”

The rate of COVID-19 “positivity,” the percentage of people testing who test positive for the virus, recently hit a high of 18% in Monroe County, a cause of concern to city officials. However, that rate can change daily depending on the number of people getting tested. Still, New York City just ordered the closure of its schools because its positivity rate rose to 3%. On Wednesday, there were 30 new cases reported in Key West for a total of 1,412, with seven hospitalized in the Lower Keys Medical Center.


School board discusses district finances

Monroe County Schools Superintendent Theresa Axford jokingly called Tuesday’s school board meeting the “Beverly Anders Show,” as the district’s finance director presented the lion’s share of agenda items, including information on fraud controls.

But first, Mindy Conn and Andy Griffiths, who were unopposed in the November election, were sworn in as board members, and John Dick, who was vice chair, was elected board chair. Vice chair is Griffiths, although the newest board member, Sue Woltanski, also was nominated.

Both Dick and Griffiths served on the board in 2009 when the district was plagued with fraud, and district employee Monique Acevedo of Key West was sent to prison on four counts of felony grand theft and two counts of organized fraud for using $413,000 of school funds on personal items, notably groceries, airline tickets and costumes.

Randy Acevedo, her husband at the time, was school superintendent, and also was convicted by a jury on three counts of felony official misconduct. He received three years of probation and a $15,000 fine for covering up his wife’s theft.

Since cash transactions present the biggest opportunity for fraud, Anders presented controls related to those transactions as well as a new program called “rev track” which acts like a bank account but enables parents to set up accounts for their children so they can pay for field trips and other school-related items with these personal funds, eliminating the need for cash. Because not everyone qualifies for credit cards, cash transactions are allowed; the district is simply trying to present as many cashless options as possible, Anders said.

The finance director also presented “P-card” regulations, which serve as district employee credit cards and provide “cash back” benefits to the district. Anders aims to have as many regularly-occurring expenses paid for by the P-card in order to generate funds for the district. She said the transportation department alone with ongoing fuel and maintenance costs is expected to spend $2 million annually using the P-cards. “The rebate for 2020 is expected to be over $26,000 and up to $30,000,” she said.

A Sugarloaf Key affordable housing presentation led to an agreement that a design by builder Gorman and Co. is to come before the board at its Dec. 15 meeting.

The board also approved substitute teacher recruitment efforts, to include waiving the finger printing and background fees for applicants. The pay scale also has increased and the daily pay is based upon the level of education and experience of a substitute teacher. The district will increase advertising efforts, which will include banners at the schools.


COVID-19 cases continue to rise in state, Florida Keys

Reported cases of COVID-19 in Monroe County have increased by more than 300 in less than a week, according to the Florida Department of Health, while the state total draws closer to 1 million cases.

The local Department of Health reported Thursday there were 2,965 cases in Monroe County, with 1,461 of those cases reported in Key West. The total number of cases in Florida stood at 914,333 cases, with 17,810 deaths. There have been 25 coronavirus-related deaths in Monroe County since the start of the pandemic.

Of the 73 new cases reported Thursday in Monroe County, 49 of those cases were in Key West. Also on Thursday, Key West city leaders met to determine new restrictions to combat the spread of the virus and agreed that masks should be worn anytime a person is out in public.

Other cities in the Keys also reported increases Thursday: Tavernier and Sugarloaf added three cases each; Key Largo, Marathon, Islamorada and Big Pine Key each had two additional cases; and Key Colony Beach, Little Torch, Cudjoe Key and Duck Key each reported one new case.

Overall, the state’s positivity rate was up to 7.56%; in Monroe County, the rate has risen to 11.78%, according to the state Department of Health’s Data and Surveillance Dashboard, which tracks COVID-19 information daily.

Additionally, the number of hospitalizations in the Keys increased to nine, with eight of those cases at Lower Keys Medical Center.

While cities seek ways to fight the virus, testing locations have increased through the Keys. A listing of those locations can be found at http://www.monroe.floridahealth.gov/covid19.

The Florida Department of Health offers free COVID-19 testing to all Monroe County residents, with valid identification. Appointments are required; to schedule, call 786-910-9764 or email testingmonroe@flhealth.gov.

In Key West, testing is available on Wednesdays at the Gato Building, 1100 Simonton St., from 9 a.m. to noon, and Fridays, from 1 to 4 p.m. In Tavernier, testing is available on Tuesdays at the Roth Building, 50 High Point Road, from 1 4 p.m. In Marathon, testing is available on Thursdays at the Ruth Ivins Center, 3333 Overseas Highway, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. All events are scheduled as weather permits.

Pet bunnies can be hair-raising

When Cathy Baier received a call of a displaced albino rabbit living in the woods on Big Pine Key, she sprang into action to deal with a problem that’s multiplying like, well, rabbits.

The little white bunny was marooned in the thick mangroves surrounded by tidal flooding. When Baier, as part of “Bunnies and Buddies of the Florida Keys SPCA” and an animal control officer, attempted to reach the rabbit, it fled further into the mangroves.

“She had no safe place to go. She was in an area where both an alligator and hawks were often seen. It required some very agile athletic skills, but our officer was able to make her way through the water and thick mangroves and finally reach the bunny. This was no easy task and we are grateful to the staff for their efforts,” Baier said.

The white rabbit was brought to the Marathon animal shelter and given the name “Taffy.”

She had a badly infected wound that required surgery, according to Baier.

“Judging by her appetite and her bony little body, it had been a while since she’d had any good meals. She is recuperating now and eating well. Taffy is one of the lucky ones,” Baier said.

There’s a never-ending flow of unwanted bunnies being released into the wild in the U.S. Abandoned domestic rabbits are becoming a problem across the country, Baier said.

“Bunnies are typically ‘dumped’ when they’re no longer the irresistible little babies they once were and families lose interest when the novelty wears off. As rabbits mature, hormonal changes affect behavior and caring for them becomes more challenging. That’s when the idea of ‘setting them free’ often occurs to people,” Baier said. “They’re the third most common animal surrendered to shelters because of what they require. A lot of veterinarians also consider them exotic, so they tend to be very expensive pets.”

Bunnies aren’t an easy pet to take care of.

“Rabbits have some weird health problems. Eighty percent of their diet needs to be timothy or grass hay and of good quality. Because they’re prey animals they don’t really like to be picked up and they don’t always show that they’re sick,” Baier said.

“There are a lot of things to consider about the reality of having a rabbit or guinea pig. The right kind of cage is so important. It’s not just sticking them into a cage. They chew things. They need enrichment and other things to enjoy. Animals are work. That’s the bottom line. People interested in getting bunnies need to be educated about their needs and do what it takes to give them a quality life.”

As rabbits age their hormones change and they become territorial and aggressive in the cage. They are a lot messier. Spaying and neutering helps tamp down the mess.

Guinea pigs are similar but may be a little easier, according to Baier, but regardless all small animals take time to build trust.

Domestic rabbits are not wild rabbits and may pose a threat to native species like the Lower Keys marsh rabbit.

James “Skip” D. Lazell, a wildlife biologist who first identified the threatened Lower Key marsh rabbit as its own subspecies in 1984 after magazine magnate Hugh Hefner funded population research on it, said that domestic rabbits could wreak havoc on the small, threatened population through interbreeding.

“This is the worst fear that all of us biologists have. Certainly they can start co-populating and that would the end of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit,” he said. “This is a real threat and risk to the population.”

While domestic rabbits may survive initially in the wild, their lives are typically short. Releasing bunnies or any other domestic pet is highly discouraged. Outside enclosures are also not recommended.

Owners of rabbits experiencing problems are asked to call the experts. Bunnies and Buddies of the Florida Keys SPCA is knowledgeable and willing to help with behavior counseling and resources.

If you have any questions about rabbits or would like to inquire about our adoptable rabbits, find them on bunnies and buddies of the Florida Keys SPCA on Facebook or email them at info@fkspca.org or call 305-294-4857.


Important message to our readers

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Keeping our readers aware and informed of all local news remains our highest priority. To that end, we have unveiled a cleaner, fresher, more user-friendly keysnews.com.

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To access your digital version of each day’s Key West Citizen, go to http://www.keysnews.com and click on Log In. Subscribers can also access breaking news on The Citizen’s Facebook page. Finally, we are always available to serve you; call 305-292-7777.