Local health officials say that the Delta variant of the coronavirus has reached Monroe County, but they do not have data on what percentage of new cases were made up of the highly contagious strain.
Bob Eadie, administrator with the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, said the variant does present a concern to residents of the Florida Keys, but he is of the mindset that the county is in a good position currently when it comes to controlling the virus. He reported recently that Monroe is nearing a vaccination rate of 70%, and that the elderly and those with underlying conditions have a particularly high rate of vaccination.
“Now we just need to get the younger people vaccinated,” Eadie said, adding that trends nationwide are showing that most new infections are with the 30-and-younger crowd.
The good news, according to Eadie, is that all the vaccines available in the United States appear to be effective against the Delta variant.
“If you’re vaccinated, you can live your life again like you used to. If you’re not, then nothing has really changed,” Eadie said. “With the variant here, in Florida, that should be a real concern for anyone that is not vaccinated.”
The Delta variant is spreading quickly nationwide, with reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that it accounts for more than half of the new coronavirus cases in the U.S. The CDC said that the Delta variant made up 30.4% of cases in the two-week period ending June 19 but jumped to 51.7% of cases between June 20 and July 3, according to Politico.
Eadie said the presence of the variant is troublesome, given that it is more transmissible, can present worse symptoms and, given the widespread availability of vaccines, is mostly preventable.
The vaccination rate in the U.S. has stalled with about 870,000 Americans being given a shot every day on average as of last week, down from 3.38 million per day in April, according to the New York Times. Eadie said Monroe County is in the last stretch of the vaccination push as well.
“I don’t know what else we would do to get people vaccinated,” he said. “It’s here, it’s free. We are trying to get the message out that if you’re not vaccinated, you’re really flirting with danger.”
Monroe County is experiencing one of the longest tourism seasons in its history due to pent-up demand and the island chain’s accessibility by car. Eadie said tourists can present a complication since the more people coming from different areas, the more potentially unvaccinated people there could be in the Keys. He added that he thought the Keys were “in good shape” in terms of the virus and hoped that he was not “going to be surprised in a bad way.”
Asked if there was any chance Keys residents might be asked to adopt widespread mask-wearing again, Eadie replied that the question was legitimate but the chances were slim. Even with a percentage of the population still unvaccinated and vulnerable, Eadie said that some of them are presumed to have contracted COVID-19 already and have natural antibody immunity, bringing the percentage of those immune to the disease even higher.
A Lower Keys man was arrested recently on charges of operating a phony contracting service to pocket cash from unsuspecting victims, a scam that law enforcement says is common in the Keys and elsewhere.
Stephen Paul Humphrey was charged with larceny of $10,000 and engaging in a contracting business without certification. It is not his first offense of such a nature.
The 49-year-old resident of Cudjoe Key allegedly used other company’s names to obtain building permits, without those companies knowing. A 79-year-old woman wrote Humphrey checks totaling $10,000 but when he never began the work on her home, she contacted the sheriff’s office.
A database from the Florida Division of Corporations lists a company called Salt Builders in Humphrey’s name, along with an address at Key Plaza of Key West. Online reviews can be seen for Salt Builders warning against use of its services because of alleged fraud. A website is set up for the company, but it says that Salt Builders is not a construction company. Rather, it says that they are “individuals who give freely of their time and advice to others who are struggling in the Florida Keys.” The site contains no contact information or description of the company.
Paperwork from the case said that an investigator from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation interviewed the homeowner in May. She said she needed seawall repair done on her property and met Humphrey in February 2020. Humphrey told the woman he would use a contractor named Robert Fernandez of Kingdom Builders of Tallahassee to obtain a building permit. That agreement fell through and Humphrey later told the woman that he would switch to Eric Reardon of High Road Construction. That agreement reportedly failed after an argument between Humphrey and Reardon.
Fernandez made a statement to the county State Attorney’s Office saying that his relationship with Humphrey evolved from Humphrey working as an employee to contracting on his own without informing Fernandez.
Throughout this, Humphrey was requesting money from the homeowner for materials. She wrote several checks that he cashed though he never began the work, according to the arrest report. He called the woman in September and said he would not do any work for her, but he did not return any money, she said.
Humphrey was arrested in October on similar charges. In that case, files show that Humphrey engaged in unlicensed contracting and accepted $20,000 from a homeowner who needed interior and exterior remodeling done on a property. Humphrey began some work at the property. By October 2019, the homeowner estimated that about $5,000 of work was done. Later that month, Humphrey gave the homeowner a contract from a company titled Kingdom Builders of the Florida Keys to perform renovations totaling $328,000. Humphrey was given a second check for $80,000 and the homeowner left the state.
In June 2020, Humphrey told the homeowner he had not done any further work on the property because the permits were held up due to the pandemic. The homeowner, however, said no permits were ever applied for. Upon returning to his home that month, he discovered Humphrey was using it to store equipment for other projects. Humphrey said that he had spent all the money the homeowner had given him on other projects.
Humphrey’s legal representation is Trish Gibson, a Key West-based criminal attorney. Gibson declined to comment on Humphrey’s case.
Similar contractor scams are nothing new in the Florida Keys and are common elsewhere as well. The Keys can be especially susceptible after a major hurricane comes through and many homeowners are looking to repair damage to their properties, according to sheriff’s spokesman Adam Linhardt.
“By and large, we tell people the same thing. Get more than one estimate, contact more than one contractor,” Linhardt said. “Don’t settle for the cheap guy, ask for a budget estimate in writing.”
He added that potential customers can ask for references, look for reviews online and ask the contractor to produce licenses and permits.
“If they’re asking you to pay in cash and then aren’t giving you time to go over the budget and study the project, those kinds of things should send an alarm to you that maybe this person isn’t on the up and up,” Linhardt said.
A number of other contracting scams have been documented in the Keys in recent years. In January 2020, the sheriff’s office reported that a group of men were doing unsolicited asphalt work in the Lower and Middle Keys and then demanding payment. In December 2019, a man was charged with fraud and unlicensed contracting when he accepted payments to build a porch on Big Pine Key then never did the work, stringing the property owner along with a variety of excuses.
News archives show a number of unlicensed contractors being charged in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
The Marathon City Council held its July session in swift fashion, approving the 2022 millage and rolled-back rates at their recent meeting.
The millage rate is the tax rate used to calculate local property taxes and determines a property’s assessed value. The rolled-back rate is the property tax rate that changes year over year in relation to property values.
There was little debate on Tuesday, July 13, among the five-member council after Finance Director Jennifer Johnson outlined a recommended plan. Johnson proposed a preliminary 2.77 millage rate, which was up from the current rate of 2.417. She reminded the council the Marathon rate was still lower than the rates for Key West and Monroe County. She said this rate would elevate the city’s reserves to nearly 10 months, still significantly short of the desired 12-month reserve goal, which insulates the city, as it did post Hurricane Irma, for unbudgeted expenses.
As far as the 2021 rolled-back rate, Johnson stated this rate had remained unchanged for four years and proposed $11.88 per $100,000 in property value, a 4.8% increase. Homesteaded properties would not bear the full impact of this increase, she added. Johnson said the collective property value for the city is now $3.1 billion, which Councilman John Bartus marveled was a huge increase from the early days of Marathon.
Johnson also outlined additional line items for the 2022 budget, including merit raises for staff without adding any new positions, increased funding for health care and increasing the IT budget and city park surveillance.
The council also reviewed a presentation from Grants Coordinator Maria Covelli about grant submissions in progress as well as planned for 2022. Among those approved and in process are the Quay property restroom facility and the repairs to the Community Park Amphitheater roof, both funded by Tourist Development Council grants, and a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission grant for invasive species removal in Key Colony Beach.
An innovative fitness court for Marathon Community Park and the skatepark project, funded through a grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation, are also in the works.
Bartus gave a lobster mini-season task force update. He said the countywide group met again recently to finalize plans for the two-day influx of visitors later this month and that there was considerable buy-in from all local agencies like FWC — which is doubling its officers on duty for mini-season — and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. Bartus also lauded the TDC for its broad education campaign, which will include brochures to be distributed at boat ramps and hotels.
After being postponed from the June council agenda, the Florida Keys Animal Encounters land-use permit request for their new project on Vaca Cut (Resolution 2021-35) was again postponed since City Attorney Steve Williams was unable to be present at the July session.
Councilman Mark Senmartin introduced discussion about specialty license holders in the Keys. The state recently legislated changes that would limit — and even possibly prohibit — local companies that perform important home improvement services like brick paving, painting and window replacement but are not general contractors, from pulling permits. This ruling, effective Oct. 31, could create significant revenue losses for many local businesses, plus could negatively impact homeowners who choose to pull permits themselves for this work, making them liable if a worker were injured on the job. The council unanimously agreed to explore allowing these companies to work off open permits, as the county has already decided.
Each council member expressed sympathy for the condo collapse tragedy at Surfside in Miami-Dade, which councilman Dan Zieg suggested was a good opportunity to examine the city’s building re-inspection policies. Currently, the state requires recertification for high-rise buildings every 40 years, which Zieg said was now likely to change statewide to every 20 years, and that properties like Bonefish Towers in Key Colony Beach and Sea Watch in Marathon, which has undergone extensive spalling repairs the past several years, may be vulnerable to structural issues given their age and susceptibility to salt air and water. He proposed an ordinance for a 20-year reinspection and looked to building official Noe Martinez for guidance at the next council meeting.
Ongoing follow-up items like Government TV access was brought up again by Zieg, who has been requesting updates on the technical issues affecting transmission of the council meetings for the past three months. He stated he saw “great improvement” since the last meeting and City Manager George Garrett confirmed that progress is being made, and that software has been updated but bandwidth issues remain for viewers. Garrett also said a mobile app was being developed.
Ordinances regarding the local “Water and Mooring Fields” language prohibiting the launching of boats 26 feet or longer from Dodge Lake, at the public boat ramp located at Aviation Boulevard and Harbor Drive and amending language in the Code of Ordinances for the city for submission to the state Department of Economic Opportunity for approval were both approved. There was discussion about how to enact parking restrictions at the neighborhood boat ramp on weekends and special holidays, like lobster mini-season. The subject of enforcement and mirroring the county’s parking citation fine to $200 as a deterrent was also entertained. A follow-up meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, July 14.
Elicia Pintabona, president and director of Cornerstone Resource Alliance, updates News Director Joe Moore and Chuck Thomas with the latest on the Key West Homeless Shelter and other work the alliance is doing.
Also on Morning Magazine,
• Ana Maria Rodriguez, State Senator
• Carlos Gimenez, U.S. Congressman
• Andy Newman, Tourist Development Council spokesman
• Sean Brandenberg, Key West Police Chief
• Kerry Shelby, Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Executive Director
• Mike Puto, Mr. Marathon
• Michelle Coldiron, Monroe County Mayor
On Evening Edition, host Ron Saunders talks with Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin