The Key West Mystique

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Key West Covid Mangoes

Key West Covid | Why do two years feel like a lifetime?

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.
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04/14/2022

This time two years ago, Covid-19 was such a novelty that we might be excused for the slightly giddy way we approached things. In April 2020, Key West Covid was a mix of a catastrophic fear of the unknown and a delight in the shutdown of the island to outsiders. That heady blend of fear and delight was an adrenaline fix that filled our dance cards with elbow bumps, 801 Girls masks and a passion for Zoom happy hours during which we discussed toilet paper while we horrified each other with tales from the web.

We didn’t know enough about Covid to spit in a pot, so we obsessed and grouched — and then opened an adult beverage. I’m betting that Florida’s medical marijuana revenues took a nice jump around the same time. Self-medication dulled our panic over lost jobs, no cash for the rent, closed businesses and a genuine fear that we might all die.

As the summer rolled into hurricane season we perfected eye rolling and name calling. We unfriended — for real and online — folks who denied Covid or refused to mask up. When, long about September and October, we knew more (mask, wash, distance) and the visitors began pouring down the Overseas Highway, there was nothing giddy remaining. We unhappily settled in for the long slog, turning our online hunt for toilet paper into a Crusade-worthy campaign to find a vaccination.

Key West Covid 2020
Back in April 2020, aging baby boomers just might have been among the few who knew how to do analog things — like sewing masks.

Two years ago. I type that and I have to go back to the calendar three times to make sure that’s right. I look at pictures, posts and videos from early winter 2020, right before Covid ransacked news headlines and wonder who in the world those people are. I mean, they’re the same family and friends who spent Covid-pod-time with me. But, none of seem exactly “real.” I should be able to explain that better because I do words for a living, but I can’t. I’m trusting you’ll know the feeling.

April 2020, might be the date historians use to define the world as Before Covid and After Covid. There was Covid in the U.S., in late 2019, but most of us were at best only peripherally aware until Spring 2020, when scientists knew enough to say categorically “this ain’t good, folks.”

Covid-19 changed the world, forcing a light-speed jump in a transformation that has been in the works for 75 years.

Doubt me? Just a couple of silly examples: In 2019, I asked a group of folks my age and younger to use Zoom for meetings. They refused after asking “what is Zoom” and saying “I don’t do computer stuff.” They still wouldn’t had it not been for Covid. In 2019, who would have believed that Americans would see empty shelves in the grocery store and casually say “oh, well, I’ll check back.” We harrumph, but we’re accustomed to waiting months for wet cat food.

There is now normal-before-Covid and normal-after-Covid. While there are similarities, fact is, nothing about our lives today remotely “feels” like our normal of, say, 2019. We aren’t going back.

Covid escalated the trends that were already shaping and defining Key West of the 2020s. By the end of the decade as the calendar moves into 2030, the transformation will be complete — and another turning moment will occur to shift us again.

What comes next after Key West Covid?

Over the next eight years, Key West will complete perhaps the most transformative of its historic changes: the shift from local working town where a few folks always visited to a full-on tourist destination with pockets of locals who can hang on.

Key West has been shifting from a working family town into a vacation destination since Henry Flager built that railroad whose lore we

love so much. Every time technological advances improved transportation, Key West slid farther from home toward destination. For 200 years we have told folks how wonderful Key West is. They come for a look-around and decide, “yep, I wanna piece of that.”

In April 2020, when the world shut down, when there literally was no place to go, Key West was a lure few could resist. By June, when the Overseas Highway reopened, we began shattering records in everything that touches our tourist economy — including the switch from local family housing to staggeringly expensive vacation rentals and the “re-purposing” of rental units from locals to visitors, leaving locals in desperate straits.

I won’t blame long-time snowbirds or older locals for selling now and making a new life off the island. It’s even tempting for Ranger Ed and me. We’re unlikely to see real estate prices this high (markets always come down, folks) in our near lifetime. And, we know we have to leave at some point because of health care. We’re staying. But it is tempting.

A lot of folks are leaving the island. Long-timers who’ve been kicked out of their rentals. Old-timers who need assisted care. Snowbirds who love their lives here but know this Key West isn’t what they signed up for. And, heaven forbid, the next wave of departures is likely to be the local 20-30-and-40-somethings who want to raise families or advance careers or just get out into the rest of the world.

I’m not as pessimistic as this clearly sounds. I believe Key West’s resilience and willingness to adapt will stand us in good stead. But it has been shocking to experience such cataclysmic transformation in just two years — and a lifetime ago.

3 Comments

  1. Valeri DeCastris

    I started coming to the Keys in 1978 with my zoology class from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The road was just being built. We camped for $4 a day. The “sunset” celebration was just folks going down to a wooden pier. Marijuana bales washed up on shores periodically. Heaven. Then….I barely recognize the place and almost couldn’t find the “world famous” pier to show my husband in the 1990s….so much infill caused me to not even hardly see where Duval street was. Lost our car of course at the end of the night due to the confusing infill that was not familiar at all to me. Will Soto, a performer on the pier, a fellow Saluki from SIU and Chicago native helped us find our car and explained what has “happened” to Key West and the Keys. He said that the protection of the surrounding ecosystem waters was the only thing that hadn’t “done it in” totally. He always is going to leave but actually has a plaque on Mallory Square. Key West….love it and hate it. See you at the 40th Conch Republic festivities…can’t stay away but much prefer where we are on Manatee River near Bradenton. We spend a lot of time on Anna Maria Island and St. Pete and beaches north of there since they are so close and still somewhat unspoiled some places. Have family on Big Pine and Cudjoe and friends in Key Weird, but my goodness….my little favorite string of islands….apparently I barely knew ya!

    Reply
  2. Kathy

    Sadly the rentals have priced us out for returning to enjoy your wonderful winter weather….. after 12 years we no longer can afford to come visit

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      I wish I could eave that magic wand and change things, Kathy. Key West will miss you.

      Reply

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

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.

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