kw update on weekend mask violations

A trio walking along Duval Street on Monday morning wear their masks on their chins. City leaders said Monday that new restrictions appear to have taken hold.

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.

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