Keys leaders want restaurants to close a bit early during lobster miniseason

When lobster “miniseason” rolls around at the end of the month, Monroe County leaders plan to have a nightly curfew for restaurants from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Florida Keys.

The five county commissioners Wednesday showed no desire to ask the state to cancel the annual two-day event that draws thousands to South Florida, particularly the Keys, to hunt their bag limit of spiny lobster before the regular eight-month season opens Aug. 6.

But they were concerned about crowds filling the streets late at night.

Miniseason is scheduled to take place this year on July 29 and 30. The commission didn’t set the dates of the curfew but suggested it may start the night before miniseason and end the day after regular season starts.

Bars that already serve a lot of food have already closed due to the state’s order suspending consumption of alcohol inside bars.

So the five agreed to ask staff to draft an ordinance for their next online meeting, set for 9 a.m. Wednesday, July 15. The ordinance would force restaurants to close at 11 p.m. nightly and not reopen until 5 a.m. the next morning.

“We’re basically in this position because people aren’t doing what we’ve asked them to do,” said County Mayor Heather Carruthers. “We have to keep forcing them to do what they should do in the first place. That’s where we are.”

This is the only new restriction Keys leaders have presented since putting out a mandatory mask law June 18 that requires people to wear facial coverings indoors in public and when they can’t stay at least six feet away from people they don’t live with — even outdoors.

The restaurant and bar curfew wouldn’t stop people from going out on the water at night with their bullynets or stocking up on ice and sandwiches in the morning. But it would likely send a message to go home at night.

“If restaurants aren’t open, what’s the point of them being out?” asked Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, of Key Largo.

“People come down here, and if they’re together in a rental then if they give one another COVID they’re going back home with it,” said Commissioner Craig Cates, of Key West. “We want to make sure they don’t give it to our residents.”

Each year, complaints abound about the crowds and partying that accompany the miniseason. The pandemic this year also stirs fear about this year’s early bug hunt.

Spiny lobster tails from a midday haul at Matheson Hammock Park on July 25, 2019. Thursday marked the last day of the spiny lobster mini-season.
Spiny lobster tails from a midday haul at Matheson Hammock Park on July 25, 2019. Thursday marked the last day of the spiny lobster mini-season.

Since the Keys reopened U.S. 1 to tourists June 1, has nearly quadrupled. On Wednesday, the Keys reported an additional 29 positive COVID-19 cases and one new death, bringing the total case number to 427 and the death toll to six.

But hospitalizations remain relatively low.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported seven patients were in the hospital due to the virus — four at Lower Keys Medical Center on Stock Island and the remaining three between Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon and Mariners Hospital in Tavernier.

Carruthers said that during a recent meeting of the Keys mayors, there was no consensus to ask the governor to stop miniseason. The Islamorada Village Council, however, did send a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis last week asking him to stop miniseason.

“In the Upper Keys, miniseason is not quite as busy or destructive as it’s been in the past,” Carruthers said, ticking off the reasons that the mayors weren’t in agreement on asking the state to cancel it. “The Fourth of July was much calmer than anticipated.”

“And everyone is concerned about the economy,” Carruthers said.

Canceling lobster season doesn’t make much sense, said Commissioner David Rice, of Marathon. It would only put off the opening day until Aug. 6.

“That first day of lobster season is the first day of lobster season, whether you call it normal lobster season or the first day of mini lobster season,” Rice said. “I just don’t see how you’re going to have fewer people on the first day regardless of what first day it is.”

The hunt starts at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. People are allowed to either dive/snorkel for lobster or bullynet them from a boat. But diving and snorkeling for lobsters at night is prohibited in the Keys during miniseason.

The same restriction does not apply for the rest of the state and in the Keys after miniseason.

The bag limit in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park is six per person, per boat. In the rest of Florida, it is 12 per person. Lobsters must be boated alive and whole. Spearfishing for them is also prohibited.

Keys city to the state: Please cancel lobster miniseason

They said they caught one fish. Cops say they had nine out-of-season lobsters

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