Updated 3-18-2020: If you’re deciding whether to come to Key West right now, the answer is please no. We have, as expected, closed or canceled most of what folks want when they come here for vacation. Read the post below and then head over to this one for the latest: Key West closes all bars, night clubs, restaurants. Events canceled through at least the end of April. Venues closed indefinitely.
“When your town’s paychecks depend on tourists, second home owners and vacation rentals, it’s downright discourteous to say “Y’all stay the heck out of here.” For sure, no one that gets paid to promote tourism in the Keys is gonna put it that bluntly. I’ll do it for them. I’ll add “please,” because my mother suggests that’s a courteous thing. So. Please. Stay the heck out of Key West and the Florida Keys.”
That’s what I wrote on Sept. 18, 2017, in the days following Hurricane Irma. Figured I ought not waste a perfectly good paragraph; hence the recycling. Can you still come to Key West on vacation? Well, sure. Should you? No.
As of this spectacularly beautiful morning, Key West has no reported cases of COVID-19, the coronavirus sweeping around the globe. We also have no cruise ships. We have no toilet paper; no paper towels. There’s a very limited supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. The Duval Loop, our free bus service used by locals and tourists, shuts down Tuesday. We have event and venue cancellations and school and church closings. We are, like smart people everywhere, buttoning things up in the face of the health disaster on the way.
Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Monroe County encouraged organizations and governments to cancel or shut down events and venues that draw 50 people or more. Folks, that’s most of Key West. From restaurants and bars to snorkeling trips and live music at the corner bar, there’s barely a one that doesn’t have 50 people, even on a slow day. If Key West follows through on the recommendations and makes them mandatory, we’ll be closing up shop for the duration, whatever that might be.
If I were betting on the island’s headlines this week, here’s what I’d expect: Cancellations of the 50-and-more things through at least the end of March and in a wait-and-see mode through the end of April. Restaurants and bars at 50 percent capacity — if open at all. Folks told to stay home except for groceries and medication runs. Social interactions limited to family. Beaches closed. The state is, I’m betting, considering closing state parks; they’ve already shut down events and tours inside the parks. That would mean Fort Zach closes its gates, too.
That’s going to put our economy on life support for weeks. Many of our retail, service and hospitality workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, depend on tips to make ends meet, hold down two or three cobbled together jobs and are still recovering from Irma’s dent in their finances. Our health care, emergency and law enforcement workforce, our public service staffers and our teachers, firefighters and other professionals face financial and personal challenges as they attempt to balance the needs of our community with taking care of themselves and their families.
We are a tiny little island with a small hospital, and though we can probably handle our own folks, we don’t have resources infrastructure to spare for those whose vacation is more important than doing the right thing — even if you bring your own toilet paper. Our supply lines are fragile. Every bottle of beer, every fresh vegetable, every box of litter comes from the mainland, 165 miles away. We are connected by three umbilical cords to the mainland for water, electric and cable/internet/phones.
When everything works right, we can sustain hundreds of thousands of visitors. COVID-19 has that fragile infrastructure in its cross hairs. Let’s be smart and devote our resources to protecting the island and its people so they, in turn, can go back to taking care of our visitors when this passes.
“I totally get the disappointment. Weddings at Fort Zach canceled. Girls’ weekends gone. A once-in-a-lifetime week in paradise done for. Deposits non-refundable because you opted out of the travel insurance during hurricane season. No snorkeling, fishing or rides with the wind on a sunset sail. No late nights in the Chart Room or sound checks at the Green Parrot.
But, folks, give us a few weeks. A few is three or four. That’s all we’re asking. Just a few weeks to get our homes — and your vacation happy place — in order. Give us a few weeks to re-group our staffers so they can serve you without worrying about who is going to do child care when schools aren’t open. Give us a few weeks until the emergency responders and repair and restoration crews can go home.”
That, too, was a post-Irma plea from the same column. This time around we might need several weeks — that’s five or six — which is about as far out as any sane person can guess-timate.
Here’s what we’re doing in the Cat 5 household through at least the end of April: I work from home with the Cat 5s, so I’m already pretty isolated. I am insisting that clients use video-conferencing or postpone in-person meetings. Ranger Ed does his regular shifts at Fort Zach, at least until the state closes the beach. He’s no longer doing his fort history tours; they were canceled. I’ve postponed the April house guest, but still have our family visit scheduled for Memorial Day. We can wait a while on that decision.
We, like most folks in Key West, have no storage space, so supplies are limited to a couple weeks. We’re hoping the grocery stores can sustain a supply chain for the basic stuff. We’d already started our annual build-out of hurricane supplies, so we have those, too.
We’re writing checks to local organizations that provide direct assistance to the homeless, the at-risk children and families and the hospitality industry staffers. We’re gearing up to take care of friends and neighbors who might not be able to do for themselves. We’re tipping large if we are out-and-about, though those public-spaces happy hours are likely coming to an end. If we were planning to attend a local fundraiser and it’s been canceled, we’re sending a comparable check to what we would have spent on some silent auction item. We are doing things with a handful of close friends in our home or theirs. For now.
How about joining me in all that — in your own home and neighborhood? Key West will be here, ready and eager, to welcome you back. Just, please, as my mother would say, not now. Stay home.