The Key West Mystique

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Covid in Key West

3-13-2020 | Key West and coronavirus | Testing, closings, no Mickey ship

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Updated 6 p.m., Friday, March 13, 2020: A couple of updates since this morning:

  • Monroe County schools will have an extra week of Spring Break, meaning schools are closed through the end of March; state testing will be delayed; and, all extracurricular activities are canceled for the next two weeks, beginning Saturday (tomorrow.)
  • Norwegian and Royal Caribbean have canceled all itineraries through April, which includes Key West. Carnival has not made an announcement yet.
  • Mayor Teri Johnston has set a special city commission meeting for next Wednesday, 5 p.m., March 18, city hall. The meeting will be live streamed and televised on Comcast Channel 77 and AT&T Channel 99


Good morning from my porch. Not a bad place to self-isolate, which is pretty much every day for those of us who work at home. Ranger Ed is at Fort Zach for his regular shifts. Lots of hand sanitizer and wipe downs, which is pretty much what’s happening around town in the places we — and the tourists — gather.

Key West is doing its best to stay out of panic mode, though as I wrote yesterday, it does feel like we’re awaiting the arrival of a hurricane. I can almost sense the collective holding of breath as the overnight testing results come in. As of this morning, still no reported cases in Key West of the coronavirus, COVID-19. That’s good news. Sorta.

I’ll happily bet there are cases of COVID-19 afloat across the Keys and Key West. Thinking otherwise has a sprinkling of unicorns and rainbows. We are surrounded by confirmed cases in Cuba and Miami. We’re awash in visitors arriving by land, air and sea who call home places with confirmed cases.

We don’t have confirmed, reported cases — yet — in part because folks are doing a decent job of self-isolating, staying home when sick and washing their hands and wiping down surfaces. We’re also starting to see cancellations of events and Disney canceled the arrival of one of its cruise ships just this morning.

But it’s also in part because we’re not doing wide-spread testing-on-demand, here or around most of the country. Yes, one gets tested if one falls into the various high-risk categories, including symptoms, travel history, age and underlying conditions. I wish we — Key West and the rest of the country — were testing everyone. Not because it’s going to make much of a difference in how the virus runs its course, but because we need the extensive data to understand what COVID-19 is, how to manage and treat it and how to create the vaccine to prevent it.

In the meantime, here’s where are today:

Disney, which yesterday shut down the Magic Kingdom and all its Florida siblings, canceled the arrival of the Mickey ship at the Key West docks. Princess Cruise Lines canceled its entire itinerary, which got some local folks to cheering, until cooler heads pointed out that Princess does not come to Key West. (Princess is owned by Carnival, which does have ships coming in here, so I can understand the preemptive, though erroneous, cheer.)

Local event organizers are canceling or rescheduling a litany of annual fundraisers, which will have unintended consequences down the line. Our local organizations depend on the generosity of our locals and our snowbird supporters, which is why so many of these events are held during season. The Florida Keys SPCA moved its Spring Social to November. Equality Florida Key West canceled its annual fundraising gala, which had been scheduled for April 4. The Studios of Key West announced the novel and creative step of limiting events to 100 people, allowing for extra elbow room in the theater and elsewhere. More no doubt will follow. It’s the right thing to do to keep our most vulnerable residents safe.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston talked this morning with reporter Gwen Filosa. Here’s the text of her early draft of the story:

KEY WEST: The city of Key West is being vigilant on the coronavirus crisis, even as no cases have been reported in the Florida Keys, Mayor Teri Johnston told me.
There are no plans to turn away cruise ships or ask the Coast Guard to shut down the port – which the state of Maryland did Thursday – because there is no situation warranting that move, she said.
“People have this impression that cruise ships are this Petri dish but the facts are, they have the most stringent protocol and requirements of any mode of transportation bringing people into Key West,” Johnston told me.
Turning away a cruise ship would be like turning away cars and flights, she said.
Key West has 780,000 people who come by plane to KW each year and about 40,000 who drive down a year, she said.
As for the cruise ship industry, it is already heavily monitored and restricted by government, Johnston said.
Each one is met by a harbor pilot about 15 miles from port before it docks. Cruise ships must report any symptoms – anything, down to stitches on a cut finger, she said – and they can be turned away due to any type of illness onboard.
“People say, but I hear about them all the time,” Johnston said. “That’s because they have to report.”
The mayor added that town is packed during spring break and larger schools are having spring break next week.
“We don’t seem to be taking that hit right now,” she said, of the local tourism-based economy. “The flights are full with people coming into Key West. We’re watching everything, on an hour by hour basis. We’re in uncharted territory.”

The hospital, sheriff’s department, airport and county schools have protocols in place to test, isolate, contain and treat the outbreaks as they occur. A good Q&A this morning from our friends at Keys Weekly provides context for what the county is doing. PS: Schools are open and they are expected to remain open after Spring Break. Schools Superintendent Mark Porter released a statement today, saying that closings should be considered a last resort, though he stressed that this is a fluid situation and the district will adjust as needed.

The county has an excellent website page devoted to the latest information on COVID-19. You’ll want to bookmark it.

Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said this in a statement this morning:

“This is a fluid situation that is constantly changing.
 There are no confirmed cases at this time.
 We are testing in Monroe County, and so far, the tests have come back negative. For the majority of people, the immediate risk of being exposed to the virus is thought to be low.
 This is a really big deal, and we are treating it that way.
 We are working with all available verified information to make the best decisions we can with what we have. As we learn more about schools, healthcare, testing, confirmed cases, or anything else we can share, we will share it.
 Doctors and hospitals know what to do if they suspect a case and are prepared to handle it and are prepared for an influx of cases if it happens.”

What he and others haven’t said is how many tests have been done and how many test kits are available in Key West and the rest of Monroe County. The lack of transparency on that issue has a lot of folks frustrated, and, I’ll admit, it baffles me as to why they don’t lay it out for folks. Given that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is concerned about the lack of testing kits and swabs and is now contracting with private firms to try to increase supplies, it stands to reason testing in the Keys is limited.

As Gwen Filosa and I just exchanged on Facebook, the constantly shifting information makes reporting on and relaying information on COVID-19 difficult to keep updated. A bit like nailing Jello to the wall. Follow Gwen on Facebook; she’s got the best and latest local information.

My advice: Check the publication dates on everything you read. If it’s more than 24 hours old, assume something in that article is likely out-dated. Use original-sourcing information; that means news websites, social media accounts managed by news organizations. Steer clear of reading and sharing posts that begin with “a friend (coworker, aquaintance of a friend, et al) who really knows this stuff said….” Many of those posts, which have been making the rounds via social media are filled with false or misleading information. I’ve read enough of them from enough different sources to state: These are often cut-and-paste posts. Don’t be fooled.

That’s enough for this morning. Off to the gym. Be well, my friends.

Here’s my updated list of news and information sites to bookmark:


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