The Key West restaurant and bar industry is working on a COVID-19 plan that would allow its members to voluntarily ramp up wellness protocols, including self-imposed capacity limits, based on local hospital capacity and supply levels.

Bill Lay, owner of Virgilio’s and the two La Trattoria restaurants in Key West, is heading up plan development in his role as head of the Key West Chamber of Commerce bar and restaurant committee. While the proposal is still being vetted, Lay said it will include three sets of guidelines, each based on the color-coded supply levels in place at Lower Keys Medical Center. The program is called, “Stay Safe. Stay Open,” Lay said, calling it a “measured plan” to tie restaurant/bar safety operations to the hospital’s capacity warning system.

“The city is making decisions on restaurants and bars with a focus on restaurants and bars,” Lay said, adding he believes his industry is being singled out for city-ordered restrictions. “Not one of them [city officials] is in the restaurant business. If you don’t walk the walk, you can’t talk the talk.”

Lower Keys Medical Center uses a green-yellow-red system to gage the hospital’s supply and personnel levels, which can fluctuate with the number of COVID-19 patients who have been admitted. Since the pandemic hit in March, the hospital has always operated at “green,” meaning it has more than seven days’ worth of supplies and medical staff available. However, its seven-bed intensive care unit has sometimes been full or close to being full in the past eight months. As of Friday, Nov. 27, there were seven confirmed COVID-19 patients being treated at LKMC.

The guidelines may include “business as usual,” which currently includes following city mask restrictions and sanitizing chairs and tables between seatings, when the hospital is “green.” If LKMC goes to “yellow,” meaning it has less than seven days’ worth of supplies and personnel, the volunteer bar/restaurant guidelines may include operating at 75% capacity, daily wellness checks for staff, temperature checks for guests, and limiting group size to 20 people, Lay said. If the hospital goes into “red,” meaning it is close to not accepting new patients, restaurants and bars could affect a self-imposed curfew, closing from midnight to 7 a.m.; operate at 50% capacity; remove all bar seating; and impose 10-foot social distancing measures.


Lay’s effort, which he said he is developing in conjunction with other local business owners, is aimed at tempering ideas city officials are currently considering to stop the soaring COVID-19 case count in Key West and the Florida Keys. Currently, all special events on public property are canceled through the end of the year and all visitors and residents must wear a mask outdoors. Mayor Teri Johnston and City Manager Greg Veliz are also looking into ways to help keep New Year’s Eve safe, when crowds traditionally fill city streets at midnight to watch “drops” of quintessential Keys items like conch shells, a pirate wench and arguably the most famous, Sushi the drag queen in a stiletto shoe at Bourbon Street Pub.

“What we’re all looking for is some kind of objective measurement that will guide policy,” said Chamber Executive Vice President Scott Atwell. “The hospital policy seems to make the most sense.”

“The purpose of this entire thing is to get it in front of the city [commission],” Lay said about the proposed guidelines.

But there are no guarantees city officials will agree to incorporate all of the guidelines into their COVID emergency orders and ordinances, said Johnston. While she has not seen the proposed guidelines, Johnston said the city has been working with Lynn Hernandez, regional director of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, on protocol that will keep residents and visitors safe while still helping local businesses survive the economic disaster caused by the eight-month pandemic. In addition, the city has just formed a new committee as part of its COVID Recovery Task Force composed of lodging, business and health professionals, Johnston said.

“They have every understanding on that group that the city may not take their recommendations. We were asked [by restaurant/bar owners] to reach out. We are reaching out,” she said, adding that city officials have to have “the collective courage” to make decisions based on the total health of the Key West, not just the business community.

Toward that end, COVID Recovery Task Force Consultant Elisa Levy sent out a survey Tuesday to local businesses and health officials asking their opinion on nine potential options on how to handle New Year’s Eve. The options range from do nothing except continue outdoor mask requirements, to canceling all “drops” in highly trafficked areas. Other options include closing off Duval Street to allow more room to social distance; allowing Bourbon Street Pub to have tables and chairs roped off on Duval Street to watch Sushi drop, with the proceeds going to Sister Season Fund; to having curfews, possibly at 1 a.m. or 10 p.m.

Less than 24 hours after the survey was distributed electronically, Levy said she had 634 responses, which she is collating and will give to city officials next week.

“If we have it,” Levy said, referring to public New Year’s Eve celebrations, “it’s probably going to be a super-spreader event. Is there any way to mitigate it? Is there any way to mitigate it enough?”

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