As the clock ticks down to Friday’s traditional start of Fantasy Fest, no one is quite sure what is going to happen.
The official Fantasy Fest has been canceled due to the coronavirus. However, city officials believe an unknown number of people are still coming. And some official events aimed at raising money for several local non-profit organizations have been scheduled.
City public safety agencies are gearing up for crowd control, with other law enforcement agencies sending officers to help. City spokesperson Alyson Crean said the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the state highway patrol usually assist with Fantasy Fest, even this year.
“We are getting other agencies to help. We have a plan similar to what we usually do except there’s no Fantasy Zone so no nudity,” she said. “But we won’t be bringing in [police mounted] horses because there’s no parade.”
City Manager Greg Veliz said the extra officers will be staying in rooms at the Fly Navy building and the city is prepared to handle whatever size crowds may show up. Assistant City Manager Patti McLauchlin said the extra officers will be concentrated around the traditional end of Fantasy Fest before it was canceled; Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 22-24.
“We believe there will be people who will come. And we will be prepared for that,” McLaughlin said.
“We’re monitoring social media. We’re trying to forecast and project out what this looks like,” Veliz told city commissioners recently. “We’ll be prepared to close the streets. We will be prepared to employ Public Works should the need be. And we will keep the city under control.”
A few groups organized on social media, including the “Tampa Fantasy Team for Key West,” say some of their members had non-refundable lodging deposits they would have lost and others simply want to come to Key West for their annual visit. The Tampa group is sponsoring nightly events at different bars and restaurants and is publicizing a Friday, Oct. 23, costume parade that appears to be taking the same route as the annual “locals parade.” Veliz said the revelers have every right to “have fun” and walk the parade route. But Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover asked if the city could control Old Town guesthouses that traditionally hand out free Jell-O shots and other alcoholic beverages to parade marchers.
“I hadn’t thought about it, to be honest,” Veliz responded. “It’s something we need to look at.”
Commissioner Jimmy Weekley asked if there was any way to force revelers to social distance while in public.
“There needs to be something in place to ensure social distancing,” he said, adding, “These challenges, we’ve never seen before.”
However, Veliz said there is no way he can guarantee that. The city can no longer require individuals to social distance or wear a face covering because Gov. Ron DeSantis recently removed mask restrictions as well as bar and restaurant capacity limits.
“No nudity and no body painting,” Veliz said about what police officers will be focusing on. “There is no Fantasy Zone. There is no relaxation of our rules and regulations like there have been in previous years.”
Despite the cancellation of all official, in-person annual events, Fantasy Fest organizers are continuing to sponsor virtual events in the hopes some of the annual fundraising that takes place during the event can be recouped. The “Community Wins” campaign organized by the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys has replaced the annual King and Queen contest and is accepting donations that will go to four local non-profit agencies to help local workers impacted by the coronavirus. And the annual pet masquerade has been replaced by a “Pet Antics” virtual event, where people making a $25 donation to Lower Keys Friends of Animals can have two photos of their pet posted online.
Fantasy Fest organizers have promised virtual events in the Oct. 22-31 time period, including a live stream of elaborate costumes and masks and a self-guided tour of Fest-decorated homes and businesses. Information on all the official events and how to donate can be found at http://www.cffa.org and http://www.facebook.com/fantasyfest.
With sea level rise being an issue now and in the future, the Monroe County government has started two pilot projects to stem the tide.
The county started testing two temporary flood control projects in two Upper Keys neighborhoods prone to flooding during king tides and rain storms — Twin Lake and Stillwright Point.
On Friday, county workers installed Monroe County a temporary flood control barrier in the Twin Lakes community in Key Largo to help alleviate recent king tide road flooding. As one of the county’s pilot road elevation projects not yet constructed, this interim measure aims to provide relief to residents from the current tidal flooding, Monroe County Engineering Services Director Judy Clarke said.
About 1,200 linear feet of temporary, 24-inch high water-filled flood control barriers were installed by county staff and the vendor, U.S. Flood Control, Clarke said. The equipment cost roughly $53,000 to purchase and install, Clarke said.
The barrier provides a dam between the road and the tidal waters of Florida Bay. The barrier did contain the rainwater that fell last weekend on the road, but Monroe County Roads Department staff pumped the freshwater off the road once it stopped raining, Clarke said.
“This isn’t a permanent fix, but as of today, the barrier has been successful in holding back the high king tides from entering the road in all but one low-lying area where seawater was seen bubbling up through the ground near the road,” Clarke said.
“It’s a huge improvement,” Clarke added.
Starting Wednesday, Oct. 14, workers will be installing another 1,200 linear feet of barrier along Blackwater Drive and Secton Way in the Stillwright Point area to provide a temporary solution to tidal flooding at the entrance of that community, Clarke said. The cost of that project is roughly $43,000, Clarke said.
The county was not able to place the barrier along all areas of Stillwright Point, which saw flooding for more than 80 straight days last year.
The barriers will stay up the during king tide season, which typically runs September through November and again in the spring, and then removed once the king tides or extreme high tides no longer cause roadway flooding, according to the county. Once removed, they can be stored and refilled and reused the next season or in other areas.
The technology has been deployed around buildings before hurricanes to protect the facilities from flooding, Clarke said.
Sea level rise is arguably one of the biggest and most expensive issues the county is facing in the next 20 years. The cost to mitigate sea level rise in the Keys is more than $1 billion dollars, according to some estimates.
As of Tuesday, Oct. 13, the Florida Department of Health report 736,024 total COVID-19 cases, including 15,412 deaths, according to the state’s Data and Surveillance Dashboard.
However, the silver lining is the state is reporting less than a 5% positivity rate. To date, 37,456 people have been tested, but only 1,592 of those test results came back positive.
Closer to home, the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County reported total 1,958 cases Tuesday.
To put those numbers in perspective, last Wednesday, Oct. 7, the county reported 1,895 cases.
The local death toll also increased, from 23 to 24.
In a breakdown of the most recent case numbers released by the county, Key West has the highest number of cases with 886. In the remainder of Monroe County, the numbers were lower, as Key Largo reported 267, Marathon 212, Tavernier 145 and Islamorada 54.
Other areas in Monroe County reported the following number of cases: Stock Island 53; Summerland Key 43; Big Pine Key 38; Key Colony Beach 11; Little Torch six; Sugarloaf five; Cudjoe Key and Long Key both with four; Ramrod Key three and Rockland Key, Big Torch, Marathon Shores, Layton and Duck Key each reporting one case.
“It is like watching the stock market go up and down,” said Monroe County Health Director Bob Eadie on U.S. 1 Radio, “It really doesn’t mean anything unless you’re in it for the long run. You need to see what the trends are.”
Eadie said when looking at the positivity rates, “What you’re really doing is trying to make a guesstimate on how many people within your community are infected with the disease.”
He was encouraged by the lower positive test rate.
“We’re in it for the long run, and just remember, every day is that much closer to the end, that’s just where we are,” Eadie said.
When asked if he agrees with Eadie’s thoughts on the numbers and percentages, Florida Department of Health in Monroe County Medical Director Dr. Mark Whiteside said, “We agree almost completely.”
Whiteside added all the COVID-related deaths have been associated with the elderly and those with underlining medical conditions.
Whiteside offered his own perspective looking ahead, which was not quite as optimistic as Eadie.
“We may be looking at the beginnings of a global second wave that could be worse than ever,” Whiteside said about the pandemic.
Multiple countries in Europe are seeing an alarming number of cases, according to Whiteside. In the United States, 31 states have seen a recent increase in cases, while the remainder are holding steady in their numbers. Only two or three states are seeing a decline in numbers in the past two or three weeks, Whiteside said.
And in Monroe County, the numbers are starting to rise, Whiteside said.
“We’re definitely entering a dangerous period, I think we would agree that some kind of surge is inevitable, we’re hopeful it’s not major,” Whiteside stated.
He jokingly added “everything just takes longer to get to Key West,” and while he believes Monroe County is doing a good job, residents and visitors can not let down our guard and should keep up good health measures.
Those measures include wearing a mask, continuing to practice social distancing and employing proper hygiene.
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Citing health reasons, Marathon’s City Manager Chuck Lindsey decided late last week to resign. He contacted the five council members and shared his decision.
After the city council agenda for its Oct. 13 meeting was published online, his resignation was added to the online agenda as item “L” in a long list of resolutions that are considered routine in nature.
Item L says, “This agreement will end the current employment of City Manager Chuck Lindsey with the City of Marathon, effective Friday, Jan. 19. … [T]he City agrees to pay Lindsey the severance amounts listed in his original employment contract: 20 weeks, plus payout of all accrued and unused vacation and sick time.”
In his fifth year with the city, Lindsey’s leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which devastated the city Sept. 10. 2017, was widely praised. Several months ago, his oceanside home in Marathon had sold and since then, he and his family have been renting.
The council will decide whether to approve cashing out Lindsey’s unused sick days and vacation time, as well as 20 weeks of salary. While his contract covers pay for vacation time, sick days are up to the council’s discretion, according to Councilman John Bartus.
Bartus said with government jobs such as these, in which a manager serves at the will of a council, any change in council members can lead to an ousted manager — without cause. Due to that, Bartus said traditionally negotiations recognize the volatile nature of the job and include payouts for time accrued. Bartus said Lindsey’s contract awards vacation time and sick time pay if fired, but if he resigns, it is up to the council to approve a package.
Councilman Mark Senmartin said there is no doubt Lindsey has brought millions of dollars to the city for hurricane clean-up reimbursement, as well as wastewater and other grants. That said, he is unsure what the severance package should look like and awaits the council discussion.
Bartus said Lindsey has agreed to serve at least for the next 30 days, and Planning Director George Garrett, who has years of government experience and longevity with the City of Marathon and has served as acting manager before, has said that he’d be willing to lead the city if council desires. Likewise, newly-approved City Attorney Steven Williams, who has years of Monroe County government experience but just two weeks with Marathon, said he would serve as interim manager, if asked, as well.
Bartus said he is receiving calls from community members asking what is going on; it was to be resolved Tuesday evening as Lindsey was to share as much as he wished about his decision. The meeting started after The Citizen’s print deadline.
Senmartin said he intended to ask that a special meeting be set in the next two weeks to determine the future direction of the manager search.