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Key West ramps up COVID protections again

With Halloween approaching and a recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Key West, city police and code enforcement officers are ramping up mask enforcement again.

City commissioners had passed some of the strictest mask enforcement emergency orders in Monroe County this summer to combat the spread of the virus. However, an order from Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sept. 25 took away the ability of all Florida municipalities to enforce the fines associated with mask violations, essentially rendering them toothless. In Key West, that meant the city could not collect the $250 first violation fine as well as enforce any criminal penalties for repeated violations, which included a maximum of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

As a result of the Governor’s order, Key West police and code enforcement officers stopped issuing citations. However, with the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the city, that will now change, according to Key West City Manager Greg Veliz. In Key West, the confirmed case count as of Tuesday was 1,028.

“Although the Governor came in and put a stay on the collection of fines for individuals, we have always had a mask ordinance in place,” Veliz said Wednesday on US 1 Radio. “We’re going to start, and I hate to use the words ‘cracking down,’ but we’re going to be a little more vigilant in our enforcement efforts.”

While any fines or jail time associated with a mask violation are still on hold, the violation and accompanying penalties are still in force. As a result, the city will resume issuing citations now and pursue fine collection later when the Governor’s order “sunsets,” or ends. In DeSantis’ Sept. 25 order, there is no expiration date listed but often an emergency order sunsets 60 days after the original order was issued.

“Understand, that while the governor has waived our ability to collect fines, that will not last forever and that fine remains in place. It’s not like there’s been some sort of clemency granted,” Veliz said.

“It’s a reminder,” city spokesperson Alyson Crean said. “Cases are going up. People are pretty good. We want them to stay good.”

Although DeSantis’ order waiving the ability to enforce civil and criminal penalties for mask violations is on hold for individuals, he did not extend that to local businesses. In Key West, business owners and staff are required to wear masks while serving the public but Veliz said enforcement had slacked off after the governor’s latest order.

“We’re going to start looking at businesses that may not be adhering as much as they should. We’re going to go in there, not being heavy-handed, however, if you refuse to comply, yes, we will cite you,” he said.

Before issuing citations, however, police and code enforcement officers will resume handing out free masks to individuals in public. And there are exceptions built into the Key West emergency order, which sunsets Nov. 16 unless extended by city commissioners. Those exceptions include anyone outdoors who is able to social distance is not required to wear a mask, although they must have a mask with them; wedding couples exchanging vows and taking photographs after the ceremony; musicians at least 10 feet away from patrons with a hard barrier, such as plexiglass, separating them from listeners; and athletes engaging in sponsored sporting events, as long as they are following mask guidelines set by their leagues.

The Key West Chamber of Commerce sent out an email to its members Wednesday, saying it, “encourages businesses to do everything they can to maintain a safe environment for employees and customers.” Scott Atwell, Chamber Executive Vice President, told the Citizen he has been encouraged by the degree to which the business community is responding.

“With regard to penalties on individuals, I’m not a lawyer, but I think the intent of the Governor’s order is being taken out of context. It will be interesting to see if Tallahassee weighs in. The inconsistency from city to city has been the biggest impediment to compliance. In my view, the governor was trying to bring consistency to the state,” Atwell said.


Key West loses beloved assistant city manager

The city of Key West has lost one of its hardest working former employees and a true southern gentleman.

Former Assistant City Manager John Jones, 88, passed away Tuesday after a long illness, city spokeswoman Alyson Crean said. Jones worked with the city from 1993 until his retirement in 2008.

Jones, an engineer, was the city’s go-to person for many issues, from creating the first city-built homeless shelter to hiring the first official chicken catcher.

“Although he was an engineer in training and at heart, he became the go-to city official when it came to dealing with chickens,” Crean wrote on the city’s Facebook page. “That’s why, at his retirement party, he was presented with a (chicken) painting by Pam Hobbs as a reminder off his efforts. John was a straight-talking, dedicated public servant. Our deep condolences to his family and friends.”

Crean, a former reporter, referred to Jones as the “most quotable, straight forward city employee.”

Jones garnered international attention in 2004 when he declared on National Public Radio that he would drive a truckload of chickens to NPR reporter Michele Norris’ Washington office if she agreed to take 200 or more, telling her, “you could even put some on the lawn at the Capitol.”

Current City Manager Greg Veliz called Jones a mentor and a maverick.

“John took me under his wing,” Veliz said. “We were both get-things-done kind of guys. He loved the city of Key West and he certainly always got things done.”

Jones was never afraid of hard work or taking on the daunting tasks that others shy away from. He started his working life as a ditch digger at age 14.

Jones was born in Arkansas and raised as a small child on the family estate in Our Town, Ala. Jones’ father was in construction and the family bounced around both Alabama and Georgia, often sleeping in tents and camps put together by construction companies. He attended 26 elementary schools as a child. Jones grew up as a hell-raiser, jumping freight trains and getting into fights, he told The Key West Citizen in 2004.

In 1944, Jones moved with his family to Key West. His mother married Sammy Higgs and she opened a beauty shop on Grinnell Street. Jones, his brother and sister would travel with their black nanny, Claudie, through the pre-desegregated South in the back of buses, he said.

Jones would move away to finish high school in Georgia and then on to the Auburn University in Alabama. He enlisted in the Navy and bounced between Key West and other places for the next several years. After finally finishing college and earning an industrial engineering degree, Jones moved back to Key West and worked at a television repair shop. However, it wouldn’t last and he left Key West again.

“I had too much education to be just a television repair man,” Jones said in 2004.

Jones went on to form and work for multimillion-dollar international engineering companies and live in places like Ecuador, where international dignitaries would be dinner guests.

After a particularly brutal winter in northern Georgia in 1993, Jones returned to the Southernmost City. He went from earning more than $100,00 a year to about $60,000, a sacrifice he said he is more than happy to live with.

“I live in a Conch shack. I cut my yard with a weed whacker and I bitch about that, but we [he and his wife Ruth] love it,” he said in 2004.

Jones looked for a job while staying at the Ocean Key House, and soon landed a position as the city’s director of engineering. Jones said he took a hands-on approach to the job.

When the city wanted to know how the seagrass was doing in the Riviera Canal project, Jones dove in the water to find out. He got back in the water and personally inspected the decaying cement jetties off Smathers Beach and he braved the waters of the “toxic triangle” to look at the pilings off Grinnell Street.

In 1997, Jones moved into his current position as assistant city manager working for then City Manager Julio Avael.

Jones did find himself at odds with the law at the end of his career, but violated the rule for what he thought was the best interest of his community.

In 2007, state prosecutors charged Jones with two counts of impersonating a state licensed official, reportedly for signing two temporary certificates of occupancy. One was for the Rum Barrel restaurant’s upstairs bar, so its grand opening could be held on schedule in February 2005. The other was for a trailer office for the state Department of Children and Families, whose building was flooded in Hurricane Wilma.

Jones justified the former, saying the restaurant paid off-duty firefighters to be there as a precaution. The latter allowed the state social services agency to continue helping needy families who otherwise would have had nowhere else to go, according to Jones and the agency’s district administrator, Elena Herrera.

“I put the health and safety of this community first,” Jones said at the time. “I did what I thought I had to do. I still don’t know what else I could have done.”


Lodge owners look for land-use change

The owner of the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge has asked Monroe County to ease the environmental classification on a portion of his property, which could allow for more development and neighbors are concerned about the environmental implications.

The owner will hold a virtual community meeting at 5:30 p.m. today (Thursday) to discuss the request and hear the neighbors’ concerns. The meeting is required by county code and members of the county planning staff will be attending to hear the proposal and the concerns.

Information on how to participate in the meeting can be found on the county’s web site at https://www.monroecounty-fl.gov/Calendar.aspx?EID=8616&month= 10&year=2020&day=29&calType=0.

The lodge owner, Jay Gladwell, appears to be in the process of selling the lodge and is asking the county to change the land use designation on 4 acres of the property from the more environmentally sensitive category of Tier 1 to the less sensitive Tier 3. Tier 1 properties have the most stringent development regulations.

The lodge owner’s private planner, Don Craig, called the property “completely disturbed,” in the application to the county.

“The entirety of the site is disturbed uplands,” Craig wrote. “It has been in that state for many years. At one time, the 4.4 acres was owned by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and leased to the RV park. At the time of the adoption of the Tier Map System and maps, anything owned by the government, especially the federal government, was automatically designated Tier 1.”

Jennifer DeMaria and Harry Appel, who live on Long Beach Drive on Big Pine Key, sent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service an email on Monday objecting to changing the Tier designation.

“We believe this is the first step by an apparent prospective buyer to get approvals to increase development or density,” DeMaria and Appel wrote. “Long Beach is again being targeted by people with special interests contrary to conservation and protection. The county of Monroe, Army Corps of Engineers, and FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) for years have been handing out general permits and approvals for docks in sovereign submerged lands within the Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserve here on Long Beach, contrary to the HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan) as well as the FDEP and the county’s own rules and regulations. Long Beach has only just begun to finally started to see some post Irma recovery. We are already petitioners in a DOAH (Division of Administrative Hearings) case pending against the FDEP for their inappropriate actions in sovereign submerged lands, and on the heels of that pending action, we learn of this new issue at the Fishing Lodge.

“It’s alarming that a reclassification is being applied for regarding 5 of their acres, which it should be noted has Key deer using it regularly as part of their habitat,” the couple added. “If the plan includes any submerged lands, then sea turtles are also at risk. Keys cactus is likely right next to the property, perhaps even on the property. All species are under immense pressure at present including the most obvious fact that Irma was a mere three years ago and recovery is only in its infancy.”

They called the Tier change request “deeply disturbing.”


Important message to our readers

The Key West Citizen is proud to announce a significant upgrade to our keysnews.com website.

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.

Former Key West Assistant City Manager John Jones dons his outback-style hat before heading into the mangroves along South Roosevelt Boulevard to interact with homeless campers along the bridle path in 2004.