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Keeping The Florida Keys Closed During The Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to head now to the Florida Keys, a region that's found success by inviting visitors for getaways. But, as Nancy Klingener from member station WLRN reports, the island chain has responded to the coronavirus by closing its doors to outsiders.

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NANCY KLINGENER, BYLINE: After almost two months of playing on Facebook Live from his yard, Tony Baltimore is back performing for a live audience in Key West.

TONY BALTIMORE: Thank you so much for being here at Schooner Wharf Bar, home of the quarantini.

KLINGENER: But it's an audience about a fifth of the size of the old days. And it's only locals. The Florida Keys went into Phase 1 reopening with most of the state earlier this month, but the Keys are still closed to the outside world. Hotels and vacation rentals have been shuttered since March 22. Five days after that, county officials put up a checkpoint at the county line on the two roads that lead from the mainland. Only people who live, own property or work in the Keys are allowed through.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No. You've got to turn right around and head north, OK?

KLINGENER: Everyone who flies into the Keys has their temperature taken at the airport and is ordered to self-isolate For two weeks. The plan now is to lift the checkpoints June 1. Hotels will be allowed to reopen that day but only at 50% occupancy. Five million people a year visit the island chain and bring almost $2 billion annually to the Keys. Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers says closing down the area's primary industry and keeping it closed was not an easy decision.

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HEATHER CARRUTHERS: We have limited medical resources, and we need to make sure that those are preserved for the people that live here full time and call the Keys home.

KLINGENER: The checkpoints are at the county line with Miami-Dade. That area leads the state in cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the disease. Some in the Keys say the islands have isolated themselves too long. Before the county announced the reopening date, there was a protest in Key West calling for the islands to allow tourists back in. Charter captain Jimmy Bailey was one of the protesters.

JIMMY BAILEY: I have countless charters calling me every day. Jim, when you going to open up? We want to come down. And the only thing about it is, in this whole country, you can drive or fly anywhere, but you can't come to the Keys.

KLINGENER: Lots of locals do support the checkpoint. Tony Baltimore, the musician, says he did well with his livestream shows and collected money online, well enough to make ends meet.

BALTIMORE: I kind of joked a couple times, said, you know, hell, if it keeps going this way, I may never go back to playing bars.

KLINGENER: Every week, the county's emergency management department hosts a call for updates from local officials. Bob Eadie is the administrator for the state health department in the Keys. He says the county's done a good job keeping coronavirus in check.

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BOB EADIE: Obviously, our concern is going to be with the influx of individuals from outside Monroe County. But, you know, we can't live in a bubble forever.

KLINGENER: The local tourism agency has already begun an ad campaign encouraging tourists to come back. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Klingener in Key West. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.