In 10 minutes, five incoming commercial flights will descend over my porch. It will take them less than an hour to drop across the island, touch down at Key West International Airport and leave behind excited visitors and relieved-to-be-home locals. Shortly thereafter, they’ll do a turnaround and head back to their originating airport. In between the commercial flights come the private jets, sightseeing junkets and assorted non-commercial services. Rinse. Repeat.
Depending on how the wind blows, I might not hear the departures. Some days when the wind is just so the in- and out-bound flights sound like they’d rattle windows even here three miles away. It’s part of living in Key West.
The airport is busy. The Overseas Highway into town is busy. The usually quiet street in front of my house is busy with chatty visitors walking from their hotels on Eisenhower to their fun on Duval with a return stroll of somewhat noisier proportions. Add in a bunch of Harley aficionados revving their bikes carelessly in a sleeping neighborhood and you get it: Key West is this year’s high season choice.
Welcome to Key West, America’s Covid-19 vacation destination.
With everything outside the United States either closed to American travelers or with onerous restrictions that can cost hundreds of dollars and mean a vacation spent in full quarantine, Key West appears to be what it has always been, a perfect winter getaway.
I gotta tell you that if I still lived in northern Illinois, I’d be sneaking down here on vacation. Oh, I’d do everything I could to blend in with the local color, including wearing a mask and staying out of enclosed places and not acting like an entitled jerk, but I’d be here. Especially when I can book seven nights, including airfare for two and breakfast for a couple thousand and change. Deals like that are out there. Key West doesn’t get much cheaper. And these are the rates for good places right in Old Town.
Three things didn’t change with last March’s arrival of Covid-19: the cold, gloomy winter weather up north; the glorious, tropical, sunny, breezy, blue-skied and blue-watered weather of our winter island — and the cabin fever that sparks the exodus from north to south. The migration started long before my own grandparents in the 1950s packed up their old travel trailer and traded Pennsylvania’s coal country for Florida’s west coast each winter.
Key West is the only game in town, so to speak, right now. No one else wants American visitors; we’ve been far too Covid-y and careless about local restrictions to be guests-of-choice in our usual beach vacation spots across the Caribbean, European and Pacific islands. So, if you’re casting about for a way to get out of the frozen tundra and off the campus, at a price you can afford, you’re going to end up with southern Florida and right on down the highway to Key West. Makes sense.
(PS: Don’t start with the “we should close down and kick out all visitors” stuff. That’s not going to happen and arguing about it just raises your blood pressure and turns you into a social media troll. Plus, it’s not my point today.)
While I totally get why there are lots of people in town, here’s what I don’t know: What the heck happens next season? Because by March 2022, travel restrictions to beach vacation destinations likely will be gone.
What happens when Key West has to go head-to-head again with other island destinations? Will today’s seasonal visitors, the ones flying or driving in and staying multiple nights, come back to Key West? Or will they look elsewhere as newly re-opened destinations lure them with cheaper fares and lower room costs?
We’ve spent better than a year re-imagining Key West. We know we want visitors who love and respect our island home, who will spend big bucks on accommodations, food, culture and venues. There are a lot of those kinds of visitors in town now because there’s not much choice. (Again, PS: Stop lumping all visitors into the late night, drunken bar scene crowd with or without masks.)
I’d respectfully suggest that before we come to any decisions on what we want Key West to be, we might want to see what Season 2022 looks like. Because if today’s visitors go elsewhere next year — and if cruise ships don’t return for whatever the reason — we’re going to be re-imagining a very different Key West.