Since March when early advice suggested masks might help slow the spread of the coronavirus, Key West and up the Keys residents have been pretty good about wearing some sort of face covering. From a makeshift t-shirt pulled up from the neck to the standard Buff and paper PPE, we figured out how to take mom’s ancient advice: Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. That plus decent hand-washing and social distancing kept our Covid-19 infection numbers low and allowed our medical systems to gain traction — and find supplies — to manage folks who were sick.
It didn’t take much more than a few days before the island’s creative entrepreneurial genes showed themselves. Sewing machines from the 1960s were dusted off, oiled and put to work. There was a run on new Singers, elastic and coffee filters on Amazon. From the backs of closets came executive dress shirts to be pinned and cut and refashioned into something more useful than a board meeting. Fantasy Fest royalty and their friends, the neighbor around the corner and the 801 Girls, got to sewing colorful, only-in-Key-West masks. The first ones went with great fanfare to health care professionals, first responders and not-for-profits. Those needs met, the masks were offered to the rest of us for a charitable donation. We scooped them up, happily handing over real cash in exchange for a Key West mask.
Making masks became our thing. Early on, Susan Schaal, owner of Coconut Retriever Doggie Duds, left one of my favorite masks inside the gate in exchange for a donation to Planned Parenthood. Most every time the 801 Girls posted a new batch of masks, I sent them cash via Venmo and they delivered fabulous Sushi Key West masks. I don’t know whether to wear them or frame them. Then, there’s the friend who whipped up his own custom-fit masks because as he said, “I didn’t live with a costume designer for 15 years and not learn a thing or two about sewing.” I’m still making masks and sending them along to friends and family whose access to masks is limited to boring white “hospital” styles.
Masks are mandatory in Key West and strongly recommended in the unincorporated sections of Monroe County. The rules are pretty simple: Cover your face inside except at home, in your car, eating at a restaurant or drinking at a bar. Cover your face outside if you’re in a crowd or can’t stay six-feet away from others. One wears a mask because one isn’t a jerk and because one doesn’t want to share one’s germs with other people.
Our visitors who began returning on June 1 are coming from places where masks, headdresses and tutus are, at best, normally only the things of a Halloween party. They arrive on the island sans masks and are shocked to discover they can’t get inside a store or restaurant without one. In fairness, these folks might not have realized they needed to bring masks with them. After all, we are one of the few places they’re required — and our Tourist Development Council marketing doesn’t exactly explain the “bring a mask” requirement. It’s disingenuous to think bartenders and wait staff can or should be the gatekeepers or that there are enough police and code compliance folks — or jail space — to enforce the rules.
So, here we are in the middle of June sporting these unique masks and wondering how in the name of Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey do we get visitors to wear masks? Because, really, they aren’t. (OK, so, neither are some locals, but that’s for another day.)
Let’s create Key West island mask envy. If I owned an establishment that required masks, here’s what I’d do:
- Keep a ready supply of standard-issue, white paper masks at the door for free along with the hand sanitizer. (Sell the Key West Rum Distillery hand-sanitizer brand if you can get them on board with the idea.)
- Order up a supply of Key West “inspired” masks from whatever big vendor works. There are lots of them these days. Sell them, of course, for a profit.
- Entice — with salary-worthy cash — a merry band of locals-with-sewing-machines to handcraft a selection of amazing, designer-style Key West masks. Sell them for a significant profit and a similar donation to a local charity.
Our visitors love going home with Key West-branded “stuff.” With some creative thinking, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t buy a mask or two. One to wear. One to wash. And one to frame for the wall.