As every person 18 and older became eligible to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations on Monday, the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County reported 56 new cases of the coronavirus in the Florida Keys since Friday, April 2.
The new cases bring the Keys’ total to 6,531 since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago.
Of the new cases in the county, 17 were reported in Key West , 10 in Big Pine Key, nine in Marathon, five in Tavernier and Islamorada, four in Key Largo, three in Cudjoe, two non-Florida residents and one new case in Key Colony Beach.
To date, there have been 3,068 cases reported in Key West, while Key Largo draws closer to 1,000 cases at 990; other areas with more than 100 cases include Marathon (737), Tavernier (480), Islamorada (227), Summerland Key (165) and Big Pine Key (152).
There have been 49 COVID-related resident deaths in the Florida Keys.
State-wide, there have been 2,081,826 cases reported in Florida, resulting in 33,674 deaths.
There are currently five people hospitalized with the coronavirus in Monroe County.
The Florida Key’s positivity rate remains below the state; the state rate was 7.02%, while Monroe County is 6.64%.
Gov. Ron DeSantis broadened vaccination availability to all persons 18 and older in Florida, starting Monday, April 5.
According to the state’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, more than 6 million people in Florida have been vaccinated. In Monroe County, 25,155 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, roughly one-third of the population of the Keys.
The Monroe County School District reported on its COVID-19 that there have been 300 cases reported since the start of the school year in August; 223 of those cases involved students, while 38 were teachers and 39 schools staff.
Monroe County remains under a mask update as passed by the Board of County Commissioners. All persons older than 6 must wear a facial covering inside a business establishment in Monroe County, according to the local health department. The mandate is set to expire on June 1.
For information on vaccinations and testing locations, visit the local health department website at http://www.monroe.floridahealth.gov.
At an age when many police officers start thinking about retirement, Key West Police officer Leo Hernandez joined the local force.
At age 45, Hernandez was actually the second-oldest cadet in the police academy in 2019. Key West Police officer Craig Wynn was a few years older, Hernandez said.
“They wanted us to succeed,” Hernandez said of the other and much younger cadets. “It was very physically straining. I have a lot of experience in martial arts and kick boxing, but it still hurt. It was painful, but it was worth every drop of pain.”
The pain paid off. In February, Police Chief Sean Brandenberg named Hernandez as the department’s Officer of the Year for 2020.
Soon after Hernandez’ field training, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the Florida Keys and Key West. Throughout the year, when it became necessary for police officers to enforce the mandatory mask mandate, Hernandez was the first to volunteer to undertake the task on Duval Street, according to Key West police.
“Officer Hernandez comes to work every day with a positive attitude,” Chief Brandenburg said when he awarded Hernandez the Officer of the Year honor. “He continuously motivates other officers with his contagiously positive attitude.”
Hernandez always wanted to be in law enforcement, but he married young and his life took another course in his early adulthood, he said.
“I always wanted to be in the public service arena,” Hernandez said. “I always liked the idea of protecting and serving. I also always wanted to give back to my community.”
Hernandez was born in the Dominican Republic in 1975 and he and his family immigrated to Miami when he was 14. Hernandez was a health inspector for years and often vacationed in Key West, he said. He eventually transferred to Key West for work.
“I always wanted to come here,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez changed jobs and started with the City of Key West in November of 2011, working in the Code Compliance Department. He had a distinguished and unblemished career spanning roughly eight years working as a code officer before becoming a police officer.
During this time, he became well known in the Key West community, not only for his professionalism but also his willingness to help people, according to city officials.
“I signed up for a job that is challenging, not demanding,” Hernandez said. “There is a difference. This job is very challenging, but also very rewarding.”
Officer Hernandez’s experience in code department makes him a wealth of information to his fellow officers, Capt. JR Torres said.
“He displays all of the positive attributes one could ask for in a police officer. He is intelligent, fair, supportive, caring, empathetic, knowledgeable, patient, on time and overall a great worker,” Torres said.
“He has proven invaluable to this city and to the department,” Chief Brandenburg added.
Hernandez experienced an incredible loss right after graduating from police academy, when his wife, Lisa, died of cancer. They had been together for 27 years.
“She was always one of the ones who pushed me,” he said. “I knew I could never let her down or myself.”
An ongoing dispute over what products can be sold at an Islamorada farmers market will go before a special magistrate next month, according to its owner.
The village has set forth a list of items that are permissible and not permissible to be sold at farmers markets.
According to Ty Harris, director of planning in Islamorada, two other farmers markets in the village are “mostly in compliance” with that list. But one, which operates on Sundays at 81001 Overseas Highway, has been cited for failing to comply. That market’s owner, Jae Jans, said there is no local law that dictates what can and cannot be sold at a farmers market, and that the village has been targeting his market, searching for any reason to find it in some sort of violation.
Harris said to this that the village tries to work with everyone and that code enforcement action is used as a last resort in these instances.
Among the items that are listed as not permissible for sale at farmers markets are cotton clothes and towels, sushi, flags, kitchen utensils and pastries. Jans points to the clothing as an item that is made from cotton, a product of agriculture, that should be allowed to be sold at farmers markets.
“Even according to their own laws, they’re arbitrarily saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to certain items,” Jans said.
A farmers market that operates on the adjacent property of 80925 Overseas Highway is at a plaza owned by Mike Anzalone. Anzalone said that in years past, his commercial property did not have any tenants that were open on Sundays when Jans’ farmers market was open. But beginning a few months ago, he had some tenants open on Sundays who were complaining about farmers market patrons parking in their lot. He asked the village if Jans’ market, which has been in operation since 2017, needed a permit and he says they responded that it did not. Anzalone’s solution was to sit by his lot on Sundays and ask people not to park there and he began to put some vendors in his lot to make a profit while doing it. Anzalone’s farmers market then grew from eight to 28 vendors and, he said, did so well that a nearby restaurant began to open on Sundays to draw in market customers.
Jans believes that the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce put pressure on the village to restrict the farmers markets and what they could sell because some vendors were selling items similar to some shops belonging to the chamber. Jans said his market has not been required to have a permit until now.
The village, however, says the markets have grown to become flea market events and were generating complaints about parking and traffic and the failure of some vendors to follow mark and social distancing rules.
Anzalone said the village said they would have to have a temporary use permit, but that they are not currently giving them because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said traffic is always a problem in the area and cannot be blamed on the markets. The village gave the markets an opportunity to downsize to avoid code enforcement action.
Anzalone said while he doesn’t agree with everything the village is doing, he is working with them to remain in compliance. He reduced the number of vendors on his property to 20 and has removed some vendors selling prohibited items.
Jans, on the other hand, is not backing down and a hearing before a special magistrate will be held on April 20.
He said farmers markets are “one of the few ways that the average person can have a venue to start their own business” and should be supported by the business community.
Islamorada senior code compliance officer Carlota de la Sierra said there is no definition of “farmers market” in the Islamorada code. Nor is there one in the ordinances of Monroe County or the other municipalities of the Florida Keys.
Village code does contain the following definition of agriculture:
“Agriculture means the growing of farm products including, but not limited to, vegetables, citrus and other fruits, sod or nursery stock, including ornamental foliage and greenhouse plants.”
Harris said in February that the markets could not continue in their current form since they were selling more than just local agricultural products and had expanded into merchandise, food vendors and clothes.
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To some, the Key deer are one of the many features that make living on Big Pine Key a unique experience, being that it is one of only a few islands where the tiny deer are found. To others, they are a nuisance species hellbent on eating garden plants and knocking over garbage cans, according to Valerie Preziosi of Save Our Key Deer.
Preziosi said the Key deer have been on this land for 10,000 years and that humans are really intruding on their territory. They were once found all the way from Marathon to Key West but through human development and habitat destruction, they have been forced to retreat to the point where most are now only found on Big Pine or No Name Key.
The latest threat to the Key deer: residential fences that limit the deer’s ability to move around and force them to take roads to find fresh water. Vehicle strikes are the deer’s number one cause of death.
Preziosi said in some areas in Big Pine, almost every property has a fence, while in others very few do. Driving through Big Pine Key, one can observe a large number of wooden and chain link fences in some areas.
Property owners need permission from Monroe County to build fences on their property. This policy is in the interest of preventing hinderance to the Key deer, which is on the federal endangered species list.
Cynthia McPherson, senior director of code compliance for Monroe County, said there have been cases of property owners being cited for work without permits, but she was not aware of any cases specifically because of fences.
McPherson said most property owners do not know they are in the Key deer’s protected habitat until they apply for the permit.
Vivian Beck, a Big Pine Key resident and member of the Key Deer Protection Alliance, said that while she has no proof of specific examples, she knows of people on Big Pine who have built fences without permits and who have been reported for clearing refuge land next to their property to store vehicles or boats.
Preziosi said one man went so far as to kill a deer a few years ago when he caught it eating plants in his yard. The biggest challenge, she said, is educating people on how to coexist with the deer by planting flora that they do not eat. Fences can be necessary, in her opinion, to contain dogs that could frighten or attack the deer.
“If you don’t want to put up with the deer coming on your property, this place probably isn’t a good choice,” Preziosi said.
Permitted or not, she said it is a shame to put up fencing if it is not needed and to further fragment the little habitat the Key deer have left. It can also make it more difficult for them to find natural watering holes, which they rely on for fresh water.
Mat Smith of Conch Town Music talks about the upcoming benefit concert for Key West blues singer-musician Bill Blue.
Also on today’s show:
• Sarah Eckert, Key West High School Athletic Director
• Sarah Fangman, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent
• Chad Huff, Florida Keys Mosquito Control
• Capt. Mark Sohaney, Commander NAS Key West
• Dr. Jonathan Gueverra, The College of The Florida Keys President and CEO
• Alicia Bentancourt, Monroe County Extension Service