Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez urges water safety ahead of Memorial Day weekend during a press conference May 26 inside Founders Park Community Center in Islamorada. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Summer in the Florida Keys unofficially kicked off Friday as students ran out of classrooms in glee — another school year came to a close. Along the way, vehicles and RVs poured into the Upper Keys from the 18-mile stretch for a Memorial Day weekend expected to see dozens of boats filling up local shoals.

Inside the Founders Park Community Center, Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeannette Nuñez met with local officials to deliver messages of caution and safety in the water and around pools as part of National Water Safety Month.

Flanked by county commissioner Holly Merrill Raschein and several state officials, Núñez drew special attention to a sobering statistic: 96 Florida children drowned last year. Núñez acknowledged that she felt compelled to hold a news conference to urge adults to stay alert and avoid distractions, such as looking at phones when children are near swimming pools and bodies of water.

“It only takes a few seconds if you lose focus and concentration. …we are always connected to our phones,” Núñez said.

He also stressed the importance of taking swimming lessons and CPR training, as well as ensuring barriers and gates are installed around pools. Also, check local weather conditions before you head out on the water.

“We can all work together to improve and prevent unnecessary drowning and loss of life,” Núñez said.

Shevaun Harris, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, joined Nuñez at the news conference. Harris said parents should have safety measures in place, including having a “water spotter” if a parent needs to take a phone call or get away from their child. As a mother of two, she also urged parents to put their babies in special swimming lessons.

“When my kids were little, 6 months old, I put them in what’s called baby swim resource classes. It teaches them how to protect themselves from falling,” Harris said. “It’s really critical to invest in classes like this and others offered through local YMCAs, and many organizations offer free or reduced-cost classes.”

Harris recalled a time when she nearly drowned in a pool as a child while on vacation with her parents.

“My mom was not close to me and she did not see me fall. I still remember the look on her face, the look of terror and fear, when I came out. My hope is that no parent has to experience that,” Harris said.

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Mayor Alberto Maza said National Water Safety Month also coincides with National Safe Boating Week. Maza said the FWC’s focus remains safe boating practices, including driving sober and wearing life jackets. Maza said that 64% of boating deaths were related to drowning.

“Unexpected things can happen on ships,” Maza said. “When you’re in the water, put on a life jacket.”

After the press conference, Núñez met briefly with World War II veteran and Islamorada resident Dick Barnes, who recently turned 100 years old. Barnes spent several minutes telling the lieutenant governor stories from his time in the US Navy, “duds,” or combat-damaged planes, to hosting air shows during his time stationed in Niagara Falls and New Orleans.

Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez shares a laugh as Dick Barnes, a retired US Navy Captain who recently turned 100, shares stories. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

“We have the utmost respect for our veterans, especially those who reach the rival age of 100. The governor and I send you our most sincere congratulations,” Núñez said.

Nunez is no stranger to the Florida Keys, specifically the Upper Keys. When the schedule allows, Núñez and his family spend time in Islamorada.