This is a developing story. Updates will be made as further information is acquired.
University of Miami students seeking a return to typical Halloween fun traveled in large hordes down to Key West this past weekend for a departure from the Covid-19 guidelines enforced by the university.
Screenshots of Snapchat maps showing dozens of largely condensed groups of people partaking in a “great migration” down to the Keys spread around campus group chats on Friday.
Later that night, a Snapchat video mocking the “social distancing” at Fat Tuesday, a popular Key West bar on Duval Street, showed a large crowd of UM students and tourists partying with no masks in sight.
After receiving this video, The Miami Hurricane sent two reporters down to the Keys to document the behavior that was occurring.
By around 10 p.m. on Halloween, Duval Street was bustling with crowded groups of maskless tourists in costumes walking through the streets, many of them with drinks in hand and several others bunched together waiting outside of bars to get in— much like what would be seen on a normal Halloween without a pandemic.
Key West is usually a hot spot each year on Halloween, with thousands flocking down south to enjoy Fantasy Fest, an annual festival that boosts tourism in the Keys during what is usually its slow season.
However, WLRN reported that despite the event’s cancellation in July, large numbers of people were booking hotel reservations anyways making some locals uneasy.
Social distancing was nearly impossible even for those just walking through the streets and not entering bars. Parts of Duval Street were blocked off from cars to accommodate the large number of pedestrians.
While mask-wearing is mandated on the UM campus and throughout Miami-Dade County, Monroe County’s rules are less clear and far less strict. A county ordinance still mandates that masks be worn within businesses when patrons are not actively eating or drinking and recommends that masks be worn outside when social distancing is not possible.
However, after Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to issue a statewide mask mandate for months in Florida, ignoring pleas from state legislators, and most recently declared that local officials could no longer fine those in violation of county mask requirements, Monroe County, including Key West, stopped citing individuals found in violation of mask policy, resulting in a “state of mask confusion,” as reported by the Keys Weekly.
Businesses, not individuals, can still be cited for failing to enforce mask-wearing in the Keys. But despite the active presence of Key West police officers on Duval Street Saturday night, it did not appear that any enforcement of this was in place.
With Monroe County following DeSantis’ executive order for Florida to enter Phase 3, restaurants and businesses in Key West are able to operate at full capacity. While the Monroe County website encourages restaurants and bars to continue to abide by social distancing “for the protection of their customers,” this is not mandated by the county nor followed by several establishments in Key West. This was evident in the bars frequented by UM students this past weekend, including Fat Tuesday and Rick’s Bar.
Over the course of the weekend, 11 identified UM students were arrested in Key West with various misdemeanors and felony charges, including six arrested Friday night and five more on Halloween.
Reports of large groups of UM students partying in the Keys made its way to the university administration early on in the weekend. While students were making their way back to Coral Gables on Sunday, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Whitely sent out a message to the entire student body denouncing the choices of those who traveled to Key West stating, “The videos and photos of students inside crowded bars in the Florida Keys showed not only a complete disregard for public health guidelines, but also behavior that runs totally counter to our ‘Canes Care for ‘Canes philosophy.”
Whitely provided a similar statement to The Hurricane over the weekend, but later declined to participate in an interview.
In her message to all students, she encouraged anyone who traveled outside of Miami or engaged in “unsafe behaviors” over the weekend to schedule Covid-19 testing appointments for Monday, Nov. 2 through the university health center.
In both this statement and the one sent to The Miami Hurricane, Whitely stressed that any students identified violating Covid-19 guidelines will be held accountable by the Dean of Students Office via directives outlines in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook stating the following:
“Students may be required to provide proof of certain vaccinations, submit to regular testing related to the health emergency, maintain physical distance, observe curfews, and wear personal protection equipment such as masks.”
The handbook then states that those who do not follow these protocols are subject to disciplinary action and may be removed from the campus community if necessary.
“We are so close to finishing our in-person semester,” Whitely wrote, “and any behavior that might put that at risk is very disappointing.”