The Florida patrol attempting to enforce a mask mandate

A Key West team is expected to enforce a new mandate allowing people to go maskless outdoors if they are 6ft apart – an impossible task among partygoers

Key West code enforcement officer Paul Navarro was halfway through his shift and beginning to see signs of trouble. The crowds on lower Duval Street swelled just after 9pm, and social distancing quickly became impossible on the sidewalks.

Navarro is the last line of defense against the high-risk behaviors which spread Covid-19 and is one of the principal enforcers of the Florida city’s mask mandate – an effort to protect public health and the local economy. Until 16 September part of that balancing act had included a strict mask mandate; now that rule has been loosened.

Patricia Hanson, from rural Crawfordville, approached Navarro to question him vigorously about whether Key West’s mask mandate makes allowances for federal disability rights laws (it does).

“I feel they are not following science, I feel they’re out of fear, and I feel a lot of the politicians who are telling us to wear them are not wearing them themselves,” said Hanson, 50. If her health was “compromised”, she would want to reach “herd immunity as soon as possible”, she said, referencing a discredited Covid-19 containment strategy that experts say would mean more than 200 million people would have to recover from the disease to halt the epidemic.

Hanson is voting “Trump all the way”, and feels America has grown far too divided. “Do I want to carry a baseball bat everywhere I go? No, but sometimes I feel like I have to.”

Main entrance to Aqua night club in Key West, Florida on September 18, 2020.
Main entrance to Aqua night club in Key West on 18 September. Photograph: Saul Martinez/The Guardian

So far more than 6 million people have been infected with Covid-19 in the US, and 200,000 have died, more than 13,400 of them in Florida, where the positivity rate among those tested is 13.4%. But Key West has one of the lowest infection rates in Florida. This was the first Friday night of Key West’s new, more relaxed mask mandate on the busiest blocks of its central tourist district. This week Florida governor Ron DeSantis removed all remaining restrictions on businesses that had been put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After police closed the street, social distancing was soon impossible. People were sloppy, shoulder-to-shoulder without masks, drinks in hand, many were already drunk. Although some people wore masks, most did not.

The new mandate still carries a $250 fine, but allows people to go without a mask if they are outdoors and 6ft apart. The previous ordinance required a mask outside the moment people left their homes.

“People are nasty around here,” said Navarro. Many are more aggressive than earlier in the evening, “because they’ve been drinking more”.

Duval Street is brash, gaudy, garish, half-naked and sweaty. Bars are open until 4am, and many patrons are tanked up long before. The crowds that gather here are at the center of debate on how to regulate masks in a town whose progressive leadership are under immense economic pressure.

Earlier that evening, Navarro explained: “We have the pressure of the business owners, [and] other pressure from people who want to do the right thing,” he said, “which, at this point, I don’t know what that is.”

View from inside a local authority vehicle as Police shut down the access to automobile traffic on Duval Street to make more space for crowds to social distance.
View from inside a local authority vehicle as police shut down the access to automobile traffic on Duval Street to make more space for crowds to social distance. Photograph: Saul Martinez/The Guardian

Now, a team of five is expected to enforce the new mask and social distancing requirements across 12 blocks along Duval Street, amid hundreds of circulating partygoers. It is an impossible task.

Asked about masks a local man, who refused to give his name, shouted: “What are we accomplishing? Ride in your car with your mask on – what the fuck are we accomplishing?”

Justin, who works at a T-shirt shop on the block and refused to give his last name, said masks should not be mandated. In America, it is his “personal choice” to get sick, he said, and a matter of “freedom”. “You should never be giving away tickets,” he said. Would he wear a mask if the health department did not require it? “No!”

A group of four leered and argued when they saw members of the media (including this reporter). “She’s writing it down,” they said. The man looked into my eyes, pulled up his shirt to show his nipple and stared. Then they walked away.

Navarro tickets a tall man waiting in a crowded line outside a bar. He refused to keep his mask on after Navarro warned him to wear it. The man asked if the Guardian’s photographer “was CNN”. He was not interested in answering questions. He said he saw “the agenda you’re pushing”.

“This is a shitshow,” said Navarro. “If we would have had our previous ordinance everyone would have a mask on.” But even then the situation was dangerous. Jim Young, code enforcement director, said under the original ordinance people had deliberately spat and coughed on his officers.

Police Officer Randy Perez (c) inform people about wearing protective face masks in the downtown area of Duval Street in Key West, Florida on September 18, 2020.
Police officer Randy Perez (center) inform people about wearing protective face masks in the downtown area of Duval Street in Key West on 18 September. Photograph: Saul Martinez/The Guardian

A crowd of about a dozen young women huddled together in front of a bar, waiting to get in. Navarro warned them they must have masks on. Are they scared of Covid-19? They look at one another, now behind masks: “No comment.”

A police officer warned us not to mention masks to anyone. Residents have been assaulted for doing as much. One bartender, who was off at the time of the incident, said she had an entire beer thrown on her when she asked a man to put a mask on. There have been “near-riots”, in her words.

Soon, we are ferried away. Code enforcement officers fear the crowd is getting aggressive, both toward officers issuing citations and the members of the media watching their issuance.

Floating in a pool earlier the same day as the sun heated up the island up to 90F (32C), Danny Cobb, a resident of Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, described why Key West was his first venture from home since the pandemic struck: the strict mask mandate.

Key West’s Covid-19 positivity rate is less than 3%, far less than the average in Florida and lower than the 5% national rate, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Covid-19 tracker.

Cobb, a 72-year-old diabetic, wanted to vacation where he felt safe, which was few places these days. “I assume if I get it, my chances of dying are high.”

After “having everything delivered for months”, Cobb and his wife braved a plane, something they thought was “foolish”. The family hoped the sunshine and change of scenery would benefit Cobb’s deteriorating mood, which became almost unbearable after the death of his 16-year-old dog and “best friend” Lizzy.

Dozens of people walking in the downtown area in Duval Street in Key West, Florida on September 18, 2020. Photograph: Saul Martinez
Dozens of people walking in the downtown area in Duval Street in Key West, Florida on September 18, 2020. Photograph: Saul Martinez Photograph: Saul Martinez/The Guardian

Cobb was “disgusted” with what he saw on Duval Street. Few people had masks on. But he also felt resigned. Asking people to wear a mask prompts conflict. He once asked a man at a pharmacy to put his mask on, and the man yelled back: “‘Mind your own business, asshole.’ Cobb said: “My health is my business.” He told store managers, but “they don’t care”.

His daughter Sarah Steere added: “You risk a lot when you say something.”

Nearly half (44%) of workers in the Florida Keys make a living directly from tourism, according to the Tourism Development Council of the Keys. The industry has plummeted since the pandemic. In the second quarter, tourism from Canada was down 99%, and international tourism down 91%. Even domestic tourism dropped by more than half, according to Visit Florida, the state tourism research agency.

Survival means welcoming tourists in an era of travel restrictions to an island with limited medical resources. Mayor Teri Johnston is well aware island residents face a “double edged sword”. She described the new mask ordinance as a “compromise,” between businesses and residents, who largely support face coverings.

“We have a divide right now between businesses and residents, and it is simply economics over health,” said Johnston, who voted in favor of the new ordinance. “If we see even a hint of a spike we will be back with our original mask ordinance.”

Rather than see masks as a means to keeping business open and, “the most important, powerful public health tool we have”, in the words of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director, Dr Robert Redfield, many local business owners see them as the reason for the prolonged downturn, and said so in a public hearing on the issue.

Code enforcement inspectors Paul Navarro (eft) and Troy Montero make sure that local business employees wear protective face masks in Key West on 18 September.
Code enforcement inspectors Paul Navarro (eft) and Troy Montero make sure that local business employees wear protective face masks in Key West on 18 September. Photograph: Saul Martinez/The Guardian

“Tonight we heard from two doctors, but I have yet to hear from a single economist,” said Steve Nekhaila, who owns a Wendy’s in downtown Key West, during the hearing. “The mask ordinance in the Keys is hurting our community because people do not want to come down to Key West when they have other options.”

The CEO for the Key West Chamber of Commerce, Scott Atwell, argued relaxing the mandate would “relieve the anxiety,” of some people. “If the economy is going to have any chance at all we’ve got to have tourists,” said Atwell. “It’s this constant tug of war to find the right balance.”

For Johnston, the debate reflects the lack of “a solid, unified plan” at the state or federal level. “It’s the same divide we’re seeing all over the US, with mixed messages from the president, mixed messages from our governor [Republican Ron DeSantis],” said Johnston. “These agencies are basically pushing it down to the local level, and so we are handling it on the local level.”

But the pandemic is not a local issue. Many of Key West’s tourists are from the nation’s hotspots. DeSantis allowed bars to reopen at half capacity statewide, but Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach county have all kept bars closed. Business owners believe people from these counties are coming to Key West for day trips and party where the bars have reopened.

“I hope this change or alteration does not have a significant impact,” said Dr Mark Whiteside, the medical director of the Monroe county health department. “We’ll find out.”

“The worst thing that can happen is you have a big surge here, and you reverse all these positive things that happened.” In effect, another lockdown. “That’s a risk in my opinion everywhere in the country.”


Jessica Glenza in Key West

The GuardianTramp

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