March 24, 2020

Key West city officials extended the state of emergency for another seven days on Monday, while all public government meetings were cancelled this week, including the scheduled city commission meeting slated for Tuesday.

Mayor Teri Johnston said the meetings were postponed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Much of the board meeting agendas were deemed non-essential for right now, she said. Luckily, the city commission agenda was light, with no pressing, non-virus issues to vote on, she added.

Johnston and city officials are working to create a safe way to hold a commission meeting as soon as possible.

“We could probably get each commissioner in here and televise the meeting. We’re trying to work with management on how people can provide input and public comment. That may be by telephone,” the mayor said. The city already has an e-comment function on its meeting agenda website where people can send comments and suggestions to officials by email.

One of the items needing commission approval is the 20th Street paving project. Other pressing issues may be handled by emergency powers granted to the city manager, an authority used frequently by former City Manager Jim Scholl, Johnston said.

“That protocol exists. We are covered there,” she said.

City Manager Greg Veliz said that while City Hall is closed, staff are still working. About one-third of the everyday staff are working from home, he said. Those with job descriptions deemed non-essential are shifting to other duties.

“If you are not essential to today’s activities, you will be made essential,” Veliz said. “We still have a city to run.”

Veliz asked residents not to post misinformation on social media sites.

“If we know it, it’s on our [City of Key West] website. If we haven’t heard it or vetted it, it’s not up there,” he said.

Residents are beginning to step up to the plate to help local medical staffers, who are begging for more supplies. One Clean Island Key West, a recently-formed resident and business owner group helping get the latest virus information out on its Facebook page, has been mobilizing to make surgical masks for the Lower Keys Medical Center and area nursing homes. Local attorney Bernadette Restivo posted a video on Facebook describing the process and asking for volunteers.

“There’s a big group of us now, growing every day,” she said. “I’ve been pining and cutting because that’s the extent of my talent. But there’s something for everyone to do.”

The mask operation is being coordinated by Bourbon Bar owner Jim Gilleran, who can be contacted at 305-304-2400.

Dr. Bruce Boros, owner of Advance Urgent Care in Key West, is working with One Clean Island to ensure the masks are made and sanitized properly.

“All health care workers are at risk. But they’re our heroes,” he said. “We’ve got some great leaders, business people, a number of the city commissioners are very aggressively working towards trying to help.”

Another volunteer surgical mask volunteer, Melissa Madere, posted her solo efforts to make masks, producing 24 on Saturday and 55 on Sunday. She said elastic is hard to find but she went to the Dollar Store and purchased elastic headbands that she repurposed for the masks.

“This is something I can do to give back, so I am. I’ll keep doing it as long as I have supplies,” she posted on Facebook.

“People are being wonderful,” said Mayor Johnston. “It really brings the cream of the crop out.”

All non-essential retail operations were ordered closed by 5 p.m. Monday. The city is also requesting that all city business be conducted remotely. For building permits, contact blg@cityofkeywest-fl.gov. Permits can be submitted electronically at http://etrakit.cityofkeywest-fl.gov/etrakit/.

Parking tickets can be paid online via the city’s website at http://www.cityofkeywest-fl.gov. For other questions, call 305-809-3855 or the hot line at 305-809-1101.

As for the local business community, things are getting tough for many. Scott Atwell, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, said some small inns are particularly hard hit. One owner told him the inn has to refund $250,000 in the next 60 days to visitors who cancelled. Another told him they were in “shambles” because they’re still paying off loans taken out after Hurricane Irma. In the service industry, an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 local workers have been laid off, Atwell said.

“And [commercial] rent is due. We’re thinking about putting out a call to landlords to have some mercy. It’s going to get real on April 1,” he said.

psowers@keysnews.com