MONROE COUNTY (CBSMiami) – The Florida Keys in Monroe County is opening Monday as part of the first phase of reopening the state’s economy, however, it is reopening to locals only. Tourists are not being allowed back just yet amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As part of Governor Ron DeSantis’ phase one plan, restaurant and retail stores are allowed to reopen with 25% capacity, except for Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County.
Monroe County, which is not part of that exclusion, decided to reopen under the phase one rules but not include tourists.
Outdoor seating capacity will not be limited, as long as tables are 6 feet apart and seated parties are groups of 10 or less. According to the directive, bars and bar seating in restaurants must remain closed. Bars are considered a business that derives more than 50 percent of its revenue from alcohol sales.
Carlos Hernandez, the owner of Harriette’s restaurant in Key Largo, told CBS4’S Peter D’Oench, “We are going to take it one day at a time. We set up the dining room like we normally do but we have people at every 3rd or 4th table and will keep social distancing. We are looking at going to the next phase and hope the checkpoints can ease up a bit for reopenings.”
“I think this is a great approach,” said longtime customer James Carlisle. “Starting at 25% makes sense. I like the slower start. We don’t need a lot of tourists right away. We are doing the right thing. Deaths are low in Monroe County and shutting down like this has saved a lot of lives.”
Customers Shelly and Mike Strickland also say they are grateful for the new guidelines.
“We are excited about the human interaction,” said Shelly Strickland. “We are moving slowly, wearing masks and practicing social distancing.”
Mike Strickland said, “I am ecstatic. I feel like I have been on house arrest for so long. To be able to get out among people is phenomenal. I like going slowly. Dip your toes in the water and see how it goes. If we do not have an explosion of cases we can go on from there.”
Dottie Peterson said she and other works had been paid while T Shirt City and Sandal Factory were shut down on U.S. One in Key Largo, but she too was grateful for the reopening of the business.
“I am very happy and this is a first step,” she said. “We are taking all the precautions and making sure the employees are safe and healthy and the customers are safe and healthy. We have taken measures to space people out at stores.”
The Executive Vice President of the business, Gardo Gomez, said he felt the road blocks were “unfair and unconstitutional.”
“It’s a little frustrating with these roadblocks because they are not effective,” he said. “Hundreds perhaps thousands of people get through every day who live in another county but they are allowed to enter Monroe County because they work here. So they can come here and work but the people in Monroe County are not able to feed their families. They should open up the roadblock and allow every store owner to make a decision about who they should let in and not let in and follow the parameters and wear masks.”
Checkpoints at Mile Marker 112.5 and Card Sound Road continue to monitor southbound traffic and screenings will continue at Key West International and Marathon Florida Keys airports.
“The effect is tremendous and it’s devastating every single business, directly or indirectly, is reliant on tourism,” explained Yoni Haim, owner of several retail stores in Key West.
He says not having tourists is killing local businesses. With no money coming in, he’s had to let go of 27 employees.
“Some of the stories we’ve heard from people are just heartbreaking. People are running through their savings. We’ve spoken to people who won’t be able to send their kids to college next year,” said Haim.
Haim and his wife set up a Facebook group Restoring Paradise Safely as a resource for other local business owners and they’re getting ready to file a lawsuit against the county.
Stephen Michela, whose family owns a number of restaurant franchises and a movie theater says as opportunities dry up, so does the workforce.
Their businesses have seen a 40% dip;
“A lot of people are just leaving to either move back home with their parents or to find jobs and an opportunity in cheaper places to live. So we’re experiencing a huge exodus of able bodied workers here,” said Michela.
Michela, who is also the Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Florida says reopening at 25% capacity simply is not enough.
“The overhead is most likely going to be so high that that you’re not going to be able to service your fixed costs.”
Back on April 30, the Monroe County Mayor, Kew West Mayor and four other mayors signed a letter expressing their support for the checkpoint saying quote, “The checkpoint has prevented the hotspot from spreading south into the Keys and overwhelming our limited health care facilities. We collectively endorsed a continuation of the checkpoint until the situation in our immediate neighbors to the north has measurably improved.”
While sympathetic to the safety concerns, Haim believes there is a bigger picture worth exploring.
“The economy is people. People need to earn a living to survive,” said Haim.
Both Haim and Michela want to include new hand sanitization measures at their businesses to ease customer concerns and prevent the spread of the virus.
Monroe County will keep in place its visitor directive that requires vacation rentals and other lodging establishments to remain closed until further notice.