After more than a year of donning a mask being a common practice every time one leaves the house, many businesses and agencies in the Florida Keys are now beginning to relax enforcement of mask mandates, or do away with it altogether.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order in late April suspending all local coronavirus mandates and last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance that said vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks in most situations. Over half of the Keys’ population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Businesses are still free to require masks for patrons within their property, but many are no longer doing so.
Maskless patrons can be observed in area gas stations and restaurants now.
Marker 88 said masks are now optional to customers of the restaurant, even when they are up and walking around. An employee at the Islander Resort in Islamorada said up until recently, all patrons were asked to wear masks, but it’s now optional for vaccinated guests. They are trusting that people will not lie about their vaccination status.
The same was reported by an employee at the Theater of the Sea. All signage related to coronavirus restrictions has been removed from the premises and only unvaccinated visitors are asked to wear masks when they are inside or when outside and not able to physically distance. They are also trusting that visitors will abide by the rule.
An employee at Key Dives said masks are totally optional both in their store and in boats going out to dive sites.
Not all businesses have made much of a change to their COVID restrictions in the last few months.
Suzette Truesdell, who schedules trips for Garl’s Coastal Kayaking, said their business model didn’t have to change much under the pandemic anyway. The only major alteration was that customers now drive their own car to the kayaking sites, whereas they are usually able to ride with the well-known Everglades guide Garl Harrold and hear his park insight. Another small change is that customers ordinarily share a bottle of wine as they paddle back under the sunset, but that activity was temporarily suspended for the pandemic. Truesdell said they will not be asking customers for their vaccination status.
“Nobody seems to be in any way inconvenienced,” Truesdell said of their current level of restrictions.
David Shine runs the Florida Keys Visitor Center in Key Largo, which is not requiring masks in its building, but it is continuing its increased sanitization measures.
Shine said in his 30 years in the Keys, this is by far the longest the tourism season has gone.
“I’ve never seen it this busy this time of year,” he said. “People are getting their vaccine, they want to travel again.”
Shine said that part of the reason so many people are coming to the Keys is because not every part of the country has been so keen on lifting COVID restrictions as quickly as has Florida. Some tourists are seeking to leave the traumatic memories of the pandemic behind and experience life as it was before the pandemic struck. He said some hotels are “busier than ever” and it can be difficult to get some types of tours.
Soon he expects restrictions to lift enough so that Europeans will be able to travel to the United States again, which could further prolong the tourism season. He doesn’t anticipate the Keys having a slow season again until August 2022.
Monroe County rescinded its mask requirement shortly after the governor’s executive order. The Monroe County Commission urged citizens to get vaccinated. The policy is now that patrons have the option to wear masks in community and government buildings.
Kimberly Matthews, senior director of Strategic Planning and Libraries for Monroe County, said the libraries are following county guidelines when asked if libraries were enforcing masks.
The Keys’ schools required masks and social distancing at graduation ceremonies and proms. Though a spokesperson for the school district said that next year social distancing will not be required “unless something changes over the summer.” Masks will be optional for everyone.
The school sports season concluded two weeks ago. At Coral Shores High School, athletic director Rich Russell said they required masks to be worn at sporting events through the end of the season. By the time the CDC had changed its guidance, it was decided they might as well not change the policy for the rest of the season.
“That would be like taking a knee at the two-yard line,” Russell said.
Athletes were not required to wear masks while exerting themselves at any point, even in close-contact sports like wrestling. They were required to wear masks while on the bench, and were spaced out to allow for distancing.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office sent out a memorandum to all staff on May 6, in the wake of DeSantis’ order, saying that “individuals entering the areas within MSCO facilities open to the public are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.”
It goes on to say that in situations where contact between officers and the public is inevitable, such as fingerprinting, both parties are required to wear masks.
It also said prisoners may be required to wear a mask, even while being transported.
The memorandum stressed that employees be conscientious of the concerns of their constituents and, if asked by a coworker to put on a mask while in their immediate workspace, to accommodate that request.
Some in the Keys had been waiting excitedly for the day they could shed their facial coverings. A Facebook group called “Free To Breathe The Florida Keys” emerged in recent weeks in light of the governor’s suspension of mask mandates. Members in the group post about businesses that are “face friendly” as the group’s administrator Stephen Mims, whose profile lists him as a Key Largo resident, puts it. Some posts are also chronicling which businesses are still asking customers to keep masks on, and the group’s members frequently meet them with criticism for doing so.
Mims has an announcement in the group saying that political jokes or rhetoric from either side of the isle are not tolerated in the group. Some posts in the group are from members saying they will only shop at places where masks are not enforced. There is even a cartoon of a pair of hands holding a lighter to a mask with the words, “it’s time.”
The speed at which the state is opening up has not been applauded by everyone.
Dr. Mark Whiteside, medical director for the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, said in an interview with the Free Press earlier in the month that the current level of openness made him “nervous” and that opening up too much too soon would be a mistake. Whiteside said there are new freedoms that vaccinated people should have, but that when he’s walking down Duval Street, he still would advise wearing a mask.
Lindsey Anderson is a resident of Summerland Key who grew up in New York. She was visiting home last week and remarked to the Free Press how different it was in terms of mask culture.
“It’s completely different,” Anderson said. “I think part of that has to do with leadership and culture. The Northeast is known to be a place where medicine and science rules.”
In Florida, it’s different, she said. Personal preference outweighs the overall health of the population. She said she wears her mask in public most of the time still. She might take it off if she’s at an outdoor restaurant with friends — once it’s confirmed they are all vaccinated. New York was hit especially hard by the early part of the pandemic. Anderson said everyone she knew who died of coronavirus lived in New York.
Anderson said she and the anti-mask crowd can agree on one thing, though. They don’t need the government to tell them what to do.
“My behavior is not going to change no matter what the governor says,” she said, “because I need to protect myself and everyone in my household.”