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COVID-19 cases surge in Keys
State, Key West see sharp rise in new cases

Within the past week, there have been 24,365 new COVID-19 cases in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health’s Data and Surveillance Dashboard.

The surge in coronavirus cases statewide brought the state total to 760,389 by Tuesday, up from 736,024 cases a week earlier.

Within that same time period, the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County reported cases have increased from 1,958 to 2,093.

One new death was also reported, a 90-year old woman who had underlying health conditions, according to the state.

This brings the total number of deaths in Monroe County to 25.

“The good news is the deaths are not tracking like they were before,” said Bob Eadie, the local health department administrator. A month ago, daily deaths were in double digits, according to the state dashboard.

Key West has seen the greatest increase of cases recently, from 886 to 970, as of Tuesday. Key Largo (267 to 277), Marathon (212 to 221) and Tavernier (145 to 150) saw moderate rises in the number of cases reported.

Additionally, Summerland Key, increased by three new cases, to 46, and Stock Island reported one new case, rising to 54 total cases reported.

Several local areas reported no new cases: Islamorada (53); Big Pine Key (38); Key Colony Beach (11); Little Torch (6); Sugarloaf (5); Cudjoe Key (5); Long Key (4); Ramrod Key (3); and Big Torch, Marathon Shores, Layton and Duck Key, each with 1.

Monroe County and government officials are urging residents to not let down their guard when it comes to wearing masks, washing hand and social distancing. There have been 201 cases in the past 14 days with a 7% positive test rate.

Eadie stressed if proper precautions are taken, the disease can be controlled or at least slowed down.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance to limit gatherings especially ones where masks are not used,” Eadie said.

He added that residents and visitors need to continue to be vigilant as the fall and winter seasons arrive, as historically there are more transmissions of disease because more people are indoors.

Monroe County still requires facial coverings to be worn in all business establishments, with a few exceptions such as being able to remove a mask while sitting in a restaurant or bar to eat or drink or while working out in a gym.

Information on the facial covering requirements can be found at http://www.monroecountyem.com/covid19.

While businesses may operate at 100% capacity, social distancing by maintaining a 6-foot separation between parties is still required. Masks are required outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained. Local hospitals continue to be monitored and, as of Tuesday, were well supplied with staffing and beds, according to government officials.

dkelly@keysnews.com


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CLAW CHANGES
Stone crab opens with more restrictions

The stone crab season opened last week, but with greater restrictions being placed on both commercial and recreational fishermen, including larger harvestable claws and a short season.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff first proposed ending the season on April 9. Then staff proposed April 15, but the FWC board in July approved making May 1 the end of season. The board also approved increasing the minimum claw size limit by 1/8 inch to 2 7/8 inches.

The new rules also included extending the post-season trap retrieval period from five to 10 days, requiring a roughly 2-inch escape ring in all plastic and wood stone crab traps before the 2023-24 stone crab season and limiting the space to store stone crabs on boats before claws can be removed to 24 cubic feet.

These are the first major changes in decades. Conch Key commercial fishermen Gary Nichols and Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Bill Kelly asked the FWC board to not implement all of the changes, only the escape ring and the checker boxes proposals at this time and wait to see how effective they are at reducing crab mortality and reducing catch.

Commercial fishermen who spoke during the most recent FWC meeting when the rules were adopted.

Nichols calculates he will lose 25% of his medium-size claws, which are a bigger seller to people because they are not as expensive as jumbo and large-size claws, he said.

FWC staff argue the changes are needed as the fishery has been undergoing over-harvesting since the 1990s and experienced a 22% decline in landings from its peak harvest. The national Seafood Watch program recently downgraded the stone crab fishery from “best choice” to “avoid” and asked retailers to stop carrying it, FWC staff said.

FWC also noted the rules had not been changed since the 1970s and are no longer adequate.

The season has been off to a sluggish start, Stock Island-based commercial fishermen Capt. George Niles said. In a recent outing, he pulled 450 traps and harvested about 150 pounds of claws. His catch is about 1/3 of what it would historically be at this point in the season, he said.

Cold fronts generally help the catch, as stone crabs start moving after cold snaps. Niles reported that all of the major fisheries — stone crab, spiny lobster and yellowtail snapper — have been down for the past month.

For information on the rules and proposed changes, visit http://www.myfwc.com.


Government
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Pros and cons of ballot amendments

Six amendments are up for a vote on the general election ballot. While a few propose seemingly innocuous changes, amendments 2, 3 and 4 would affect worker pay, primary voting and how voters place amendments on the ballot.

The Florida Constitution, with some limits, grants the people the right to initiate constitutional amendments. To be approved, a proposed amendment must garner a super-majority, which is equal to 60% or more of the vote.

Amendment 2 proposes to increase the minimum wage incrementally each year by $1 until 2026, when it reaches $15 an hour.

This “Florida For A Fair Wage” ballot initiative was led by Central Florida attorney John Morgan, owner of Morgan & Morgan, who spearheaded Florida’s successful medical marijuana amendment in 2016.

Under the proposed amendment, the state’s minimum wage would increase to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, 2021, which is $1.44 more than the current minimum wage of $8.56 an hour. Each year after 2021, it would increase by $1 until it reaches $15 an hour. The minimum wage for tipped income earners would increase to $11.98 per hour.

Approval of the amendment would result in a 77% increase in labor costs over the course of six years, with the restaurant and lodging industries feeling the brunt, according to a statement released by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“If passed, this would have a devastating effect on businesses, decrease job opportunities and raise prices for consumers,” FRLA said in a statement.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce also opposes Amendment 2.

Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce Executive Director David Turner said he personally is against the wage increase, especially now given the COVID-19-impacted economy.

“If you took every position to be hired at $15 an hour, every position above that would have to be increased,” he said. “This would affect all the scales of the economy. It’s a major factor for everyone living down here. It’s a hard decision. On one hand it’s expensive to live down here, but on the other, you can’t push the increase onto the consumers, especially in our small community.”

According to financial analysts, state and local government costs would increase to comply with the new minimum wage levels by approximately $16 million in 2022, increasing to about $540 million in 2027.

The League of Women Voters of the Upper Keys support the wage increase, according to chapter president Catherine Bosworth.

“The League is for it. We believe people should have a living wage. This amendment would be the most financially impactful,” she said.

A statewide St. Pete Polls survey also shows nearly 65% of voters support Amendment 2.

Amendment 3 would allow all registered voters to vote in the primaries regardless of party affiliation or if non-party affiliated. The change would create a top-two elimination process in contests for state legislative, governor and cabinet races.

All candidates would go on the same ballot in the primary regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the top two finishers would have a runoff in November. If only two candidates qualify, the primary race will be eliminated.

Both Democrat and Republican parties oppose the proposed change.

The local chapter of the League of Women Voters also opposes the amendment, according to Bosworth.

“Picking your top two would be harmful to candidates of color,” she said.

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus recently spoke in opposition to the amendment, anticipating that it would place minority candidates at a disadvantage and reduce their representation in the Legislature.

Brenda Carr, former vice president of the Upper Keys League of Women Voters chapter, says such concerns are unfounded.

“What they are saying isn’t supported by data at all,” Carr said. “The data shows that open primaries are actually good for minority candidates. Eight years after this system was implemented in California the Black Legislative Caucus had increased by 50% and the Hispanic Caucus had increased by 25%. And voter approval of the Legislature went from 14% to 42%. ... There are currently 3.6 million voters who are disenfranchised in our current closed primary system because they preferred not to join a party.”

Amendment 4 proposes a second vote to approve citizen-initiative amendments.

This the most important amendment, according to Bosworth, which the League of Women Voters opposes because it makes it harder for voters to place an amendment in the ballot.

“We would have to pass the same vote twice. If two-thirds of the voters approved the amendment, it would still have to be voted on again two years later,” she said. “It would deny citizens’ initiatives to change the laws. We really have to vote no on that. It’s cost prohibitive and it’s not transparent who is behind it.”

The Florida Chamber of Commerce supports the amendment to tamp down efforts of special interest groups to change the state constitution. However, opponents say the amendment is really an effort by legislators and lobbyists to have greater control over placing amendments on the ballot.

Amendment 1 is citizenship requirement to vote.

This amendment is a matter of semantics and bears no financial impact to the state or local governments. The Constitution now says “every citizen” can register to vote, as provided by law. The change, if approved, would say “only citizens” can vote.

Although seemingly unnecessary since U.S. citizenship is already required to vote in Florida, opponents say the proposed change is nothing more than an expression of prejudice toward foreigners.

Amendment 5 proposes limitations on homestead property taxes and increases the portability timeframe from two to three years to transfer accrued benefit.

Florida TaxWatch, a non-partisan government study group, recommends approval.

“The increased fairness provided to homeowners far exceeds any inequity caused to other property taxpayers,” the group said in a statement. It calculates a tax savings of $1,730 per $100,000 valuation on the average Florida home and says the tax revenue loss to local governments would be relatively minor.

The League of Women Voters opposes it.

“Tax laws should be up to our county since we base our services on it. It’s a home-rule decision,” Bosworth said.

Amendment 6 would increase tax discounts for wounded veterans’ surviving spouses.

“The state Legislature continues to provide help and appreciation to Florida’s veteran population. This step is another way to keep Florida’s veteran population strong and maintain the state’s popular retirement destination,” according to Florida TaxWatch. For this reason, the group recommends approval.

The League of Women Voters opposes the amendment because of property tax-base impacts that should be a “home-rule decision,” according to Bosworth.

tjava@keysnews.com


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United adds Houston to Key West service

Airline service at Key West International Airport continues to expand, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

United Airlines is adding daily service between Key West and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport starting Dec. 17. The daily service is scheduled to run through March, County Airports Director Richard Strickland said.

Long-term service “depends on how well it does,” Strickland said. The Embraer E-175 plane United will be using can accommodate 76 passengers and the plane will have a first-class section.

“This is huge,” Strickland said. “I have been working on this service since I got here and I have been here for three years.”

The Monroe County Commission will discuss airline service and terminal expansion plan at Key West International Airport when it meets virutally Wednesday, Oct. 21, starting at 9 a.m.

The meeting will be televised on Comcast Channel 76 or AT&T Uverse Channel 99. For directions on participating in the meeting, visit the county’s agenda page on its web site at http://www.monroecountyfl.iqm2.com/citizens/default.aspx.

Strickland is scheduled to give a presentation on design and construction schedule for a new concourse at the Key West International Airport. The overall project includes programming, design, permitting, financing and construction. The program is comprised of several elements to improve the level of service to passengers and tenants.

The Houston route is the second new daily service United Airlines has announced in a month. The airline will begin offering weekend service between Key West and Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., on Nov. 6 and daily service on Dec. 15, Strickland said.

Strickland and the county had been working with United to start the new route for several months, Strickland said.

Adding two new routes for the airport is almost unheard of since the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the airline industry.

The airport is coming off a sluggish summer, as passenger counts were down significantly because of the pandemic. To help offset the losses in revenues, the airport received more than $17 million in CARES Act funding from the federal government.

However, business at the airport has picked up in recent months, Strickland said.

tohara@keysnews.com


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