There was good news and bad news about mask compliance in Key West this past weekend, the first weekend with a new, stricter mask-wearing restriction in effect.
While seven local businesses violated the new emergency mask order and 18 individuals received mask citations, there appeared to be at least more awareness that a mask was required, according to Key West Mayor Teri Johnston and Assistant City Manager Patti McLauchlin.
“I walked it with code officers and police officers Saturday night. I rode Duval [Street]. You could tell the difference. It was a great improvement,” McLaughlin said.
“She saw a marked difference between this weekend and last weekend,” Johnston said about what McLauchlin told her. “More people were wearing masks or had masks around their neck.”
Johnston said she made her own daytime reconnaissance to the downtown area and saw more compliance.
“It feels different. It’s turning,” she said, but warning, “Are we there yet? We’ve got a ways to go.”
The new ordinance requiring everyone over the age of 6 to wear a face covering while outdoors except for a few exceptions, including while riding in a private car or boat, was put into place on Thursday last week. The soaring COVID-19 case count in Monroe County — 320 new cases from Nov. 13-20, including 197 in Key West — convinced city commissioners to put the stricter measure into place, despite objections from several local business owners.
Seven of those business owners had staff members cited for violating the new mask ordinance over the weekend. The businesses cited include Schooner Wharf, Key West Fish & Chips, Sebago Watersports, Sunset Water Sports, Hank’s Saloon, Mango’s Restaurant, and Jack Flat’s. Jack Flats is a repeat offender, having received four additional mask citations since the beginning of November, including one issued to owner Joe Walsh on Nov. 17.
Walsh, who owns several other Key West restaurants that have received mask violation citations recently, has said he does not believe masks effectively stop or slow the spread of the COVID virus and that he allows staff and customers to make their own decisions on whether to wear a face covering while inside his restaurants. He spoke against the new ordinance at the commission’s special meeting last Thursday, saying that of his 463 staff members, only 12 had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March. He said his in-place health measures for staff, including regular wellness checks and quarantining any worker with pay if they believe they are sick, are better methods of slowing the virus spread.
“Where the infections come from is sick people. Keep the sick people away from work,” Walsh told commissioners.
In addition to the citations, police and code officers issued 500 warnings to people on Key West streets Friday and Saturday alone. Officers also handed out 170 free masks over that same time period.
“I did have more officers out” over the weekend, according to McLaughlin. “There were three code officers and three to four police officers. There was a higher presence [of officers] asking people to wear a mask.”
There was one additional COVID-related death over the weekend, according to the Florida Department of Heath Monroe County. A 69-year-old man died on Friday, bringing the total death total in the county to 26.
Florida Department of Health in Monroe County Administrator Bob Eadie said on Monday’s U.S. 1 Radio Morning Magazine that while the man did have underlying health conditions, those are not what caused his death.
“He had underlying conditions but he wouldn’t have died on that day,” Eadie said. “He died because COVID killed him.”
Eadie reiterated his belief that masks are a critical part of slowing the virus spread.
“Wear a mask. It’s not going to kill you. But it might kill you if you don’t.” he said.
A year after undergoing a double mastectomy and radiation treatment to battle breast cancer, Sabrah Witkamp planned to celebrate her recovery by running a half marathon in Greece, but things didn’t work out. So she decided to run on home turf.
When Witkamp’s plans for Athens were foiled by the coronavirus pandemic, and after losing both her parents last month, it was sheer determination that compelled her to run a full marathon, from her home in Key Largo’s Stillwright Point to Bud N’ Mary’s in Islamorada Saturday, Nov. 7, in the rain as Tropical Storm Eta approached.
“When I left at 4:30 in the morning, it was drizzling and really dark out still. I left a note for my husband and son that I would see them down at the Islamorada Publix at 10 a.m., and then I left,” Witkamp said. “The wind was blowing south, so it was almost pushing me and it was never super sunny all day.”
Witkamp had a headlamp on and carried a little bit of money to stop for some water along the way as she ran the 26.22 miles in 6 hours and 29 minutes.
“I ran a 15-minute, 6-second mile. I’m not a fast runner by any stretch,” Witkamp said. “I cramped up a bit and had to stop a few times. I think around 8:30 [a.m.], people started meeting me. I felt so accomplished. I was so grateful for their support, that they took the time out to help me check something off my bucket list.”
When she first started training after her cancer fight, she could barely run to the end of her street. This is a new journey for Witkamp, who celebrated her 50th birthday on Friday, Nov. 13.
“I had to do it. It was a now-or-never situation. I’ve always been a runner and I did it to raise awareness for breast cancer. I did it because I’m a survivor. I did it to encourage others to take care of themselves, and believe me, I know getting started is always the hardest part,” Witkamp said.
“My surgery was Oct. 1, 2019. I started training in January or February of this year sort of inconsistently for the first 10 months, but I kept at it. It was hard and it was hard to be disciplined. I was dedicated to the thought of being a marathon runner. I also was more motivated because I thought we were going to be in Greece.”
Witkamp bought an Athens run T-shirt for inspiration.
It has been through the distances run and the time spent by herself that she’s been able to shed some of the grief for her parents and begin to self-heal.
Friend Sabrina Wampler ran the last leg of the race alongside Witkamp.
“I think that Sabrah is one of the sincerest people that I know,” Wampler said. “She’s had a lot of difficult circumstances in her life recently and she still did it. She still achieved her personal goal. She didn’t let COVID stop her. She didn’t even let Tropical Storm Eta stop her. She’s taught me to stay true to ourselves.
“She’s a bad ass and we’re all so very proud of her.”
Every five miles during her marathon run, Witkamp stopped to provide Facebook live updates in American sign language, since she used to teach at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, and remains friends with former students and staff.
Witkamp teaches at Ocean Studies Charter School in Key Largo and says her students have learned a lesson about perseverance.
Since being diagnosed with cancer last year on April Fool’s Day, Witkamp said she has shifted emotionally to be more mindful, resolute and a better listener.
Ten years ago, Witkamp’s mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and passed away this year on Oct. 30. Both parents died within 29 days of each other.
“Twenty years ago, I had no idea that this is something that I’d go through or something that my mother went through, but here I am. I practice a mindful minute with my students and we try to pay it forward,” Witkamp said.
“I still can’t believe people showed up to support me. I was so humbled. Who am I? I’m just a girl trying to check something off my bucket list.”
Witkamp will travel this week to her hometown of Springfield, Illinois. She will be flying the 1,340-mile distance.
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Passing five resolutions including approval of Lower Matecumbe Key canal restoration work, and discussing items such as public events and the Florida Department of Transportation project of a pedestrian bridge at Founders Park, the five new Islamorada councilmembers got to work, incorporating a lot of dialogue and exchange of ideas.
At their first meeting Nov. 19, council chose Joseph “Buddy” Pinder as the village’s new mayor. His family traces its roots back to Islamorada’s founding families. The vice mayor is Peter Bacheler. The votes by councilmembers were unanimous and no other names were proffered for the mostly honorary positions. Judge Sharon Hamilton administered the oaths of office.
Village Clerk Kelly Toth explained the ready-to-go name plates for council. “Whenever there is an election for mayor and vice mayor, I print out a vice mayor and mayor insert for every councilmember. Then, I only need change two inserts when the decision is made. I bring two extra name plate holders with me. While I was recording the vote, the deputy clerk was changing the insert.”
Next was a ceremony to honor former vice mayor Ken Davis with the naming of the Emergency Operations Center at Islamorada Fire Station No. 20 after him. Davis passed away from heart failure during the village election. He had a lifetime of service in the military and locally on council. His widow, Charlotte Porter Davis, was on hand and Pastor Tony Hammon led a prayer of thanks and devotion.
Among the council’s decisions was to extend usage restrictions on Founders Park until April 1, which hampers the Upper Keys Rotary’s annual Gigantic Nautical Flea Market set for Feb. 20-21. Council heard from Monroe County Department of Health’s Director Bob Eadie on pandemic predictions for the coming months, and both he and staff leaders, as voiced by acting village manager Maria Bassett, felt they could not enable crowds and ensure safety at large events that bring numerous out-of-town visitors to Islamorada and the park.
Joe Roth III, representing the Rotary, said the event had a pandemic-related plan that spaced out food booths, used more of the park to enhance social distancing and limited the number of booths and entrants, but the concept was not sufficient to ease the consciences of the council to allow any event of this size to be given a park permit at this time.
What would’ve been the 26th annual Gigantic Nautical Flea Market traditionally raises $250,000 toward college scholarships for local students through entry fees, and food, drink and booth fees. It also supports an annual donation to the Take Stock in College program that is “double-matched” by the state, said Roth. “We do have a rainy day fund, originated for adverse weather, but the money won’t be as impactful.”
Councilman David Webb asked if the Rotary had considered a different date later in the year, and Roth said the club had not spoken about that. Roth left the door open saying if the Covid-19 outlook should improve, he may come back before council because the Rotary still could pull off the event if they knew by the end of January that their event could happen.
During discussion, Councilman Mark Gregg said he would share accessory dwelling unit information, such as about so-called mother-in-law quarters, with the clerk as an option for affordable housing that he wanted the council to read so they could discuss the idea at the December council meeting. Gregg also proposed asking staff to design a plan to ascertain the exact number of buildable lots, both residential and commercial, in the village so when building permits run out, the village is prepared. The council agreed.
Vice Mayor Bacheler suggested a limit on public records requests that are taking too much staff time. Possibly limiting requests to an hour of staff time, for which there is no charge, was suggested and implementing a fee scale after that.
Councilman Henry Rosenthal brought up the FDOT pedestrian bridge and the prospect of eliminating its construction. Because contracts have been signed, contractor and subcontractors have incurred costs such as bonding in order to bid on these projects, and utilities already incurred expenses from moving utilities, the council agreed the possibility needed greater exploration and a local referendum would be for naught if the costs outweigh benefits.
Although fast action may be needed as construction continues, as suggested by Rosenthal, it’s impractical given the consequences, council agreed. More information on related issues is needed, they said. Among the concerns were a silent majority versus a loud minority against the project; the cost and timing of a referendum; bridge and elevator upkeep and the cost of backing out of a contract are among the issues.
Gregg, an attorney, said various actions could result in litigation.
Bassett said, “I think you’re looking at a lot of money if you want to stop it.”
Village attorney Roget Bryan said upkeep costs are not significant. Then, Bassett said costs for a yearly elevator maintenance contract for village hall is $3,500, for example.
Past mayor Deb Gillis stayed for the entire meeting and said there were plenty of public meetings about the pedestrian bridge. “It wasn’t just a council decision... There were a couple citizen-driven referenda about this, but they never got off the ground.”
The webpage for the $4.68 million project can be found at https://www.islamorada.fl.us/news_detail_T13_R531.php.