March 25, 2020

Scott Baste/PADDLE! The Florida Keys
Upper Keys residents send another message to visitors traveling northbound on U.S. 1 Saturday.

Scott Baste/PADDLE! The Florida Keys Upper Keys residents send another message to visitors traveling northbound on U.S. 1 Saturday.

KEY LARGO — A local community initiative, Save Our Green Space, protested tourists entering the Florida Keys last Friday morning, urging them to return home ahead of the Monroe County imposed tourism shutdown at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 22.

The county’s decision to suspend lodging at the end of the weekend left Key Largo particularly vulnerable as a target destination for vacationers and spring breakers after Miami closed its beaches Thursday, according to Save Our Green Space protesters.

Emilie Caldwell Stewart/Contributed
Protesters gathered along U.S. 1 Friday morning near the entrance to Key Largo to discourage visitors from entering the Florida Keys due to the coronavirus threat.

Protesters say they observed tour buses, RVs, camping trailers and trailered watercraft heading southbound and counted license plates representing multiple states with many being from New York, the state with the most confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

Save Our Green Space, which initially organized last year to block housing from being built in Key Largo on property the county purchased for park purposes, said its goal during Friday’s protest along U.S. 1 was to help contain the spread of the virus by allowing residents to safely practice social distancing and to stock home supplies and groceries without competition from visitors.

Marlen Weeks who spearheaded the initiative, said she had been urging Monroe County officials to close the county to tourists for weeks ahead of its mandated shutdown out of concern for residents living with elderly parents and those who are immunocompromised or have had a serious medical history.

“I’ve been sounding the alarm for more than three weeks now and I have tried everything in my political playbook and I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “I’ve been watching the charts and for every one person infected, it spreads to 10 people.”

Monroe County Tourist Development Council spokesman Andy Newman said that that all tourism advertising had been suspended and the county is proactively showcasing the novel coronavirus information on its website.

The county’s 16,000 lodging units have been directed to stop taking new reservations after Sunday. County officials added they will re-evaluate the tourism closures and make changes when appropriate.

“Why are we always so behind every other county and municipality?” Weeks asked.

On Saturday, a group of residents gathered along the northbound lanes of U.S. 1 on Plantation Key to wish safe travels to visitors.

tjava@keysnews.com