Back in the olden days, which right now I’m saying is anytime before March 2020, when the Key West Covid sun seekers descended, this wouldn’t have rated more than a passing comment over dinner: “Hey, have you noticed how many parking spots there are along Southard?”
Back then we took for granted that shortly after Easter, and certainly by Mother’s Day, we could have our pick of spaces along the street, in parking lots and maybe even on the first floor of the parking garages. We could park up close to a store out on the boulevard and not drag out a trash can to discourage a clueless visitor from parking smack in front of the gate.
Then came the Key West Covid sun seekers
Snowbirds and second home owners who normally departed for cooler climates up north stayed put, many of them for the full two years. Come April 2022? I’m pretty sure some of them couldn’t get gone fast enough. (Though, I will say I know a handful of second home owners who decided during Covid that they’d ditch the other house and make Key West permanent. After two summers on the island, they realized, heck, we can manage this.)
And pretty much every American who, during Covid, was desperate for a get-out-of-wherever escape that involved sun, sand, margaritas and no masks, headed to Key West. Many for the first time, blissfully unaware that our beaches didn’t look like the ads; or, that the threat of a hurricane could force them into a mandatory evacuation. Yes, you paid for your vacation; yes, you still have to leave. No, we can’t help you; we’re going to put up the shutters as soon as you get your bags in the car. Get your money back? Did you buy the insurance? Then, uh. no.
Those two years have been cash-register ringing monsters for the tourist trades. If one could find enough workers to cobble together a staff, there was no shortage of visitors willing to stand in line for a coconut something-something or share sweat with the hordes at Mallory Square sunset. And there sure was no shortage of visitors willing to fork over a thousand-plus at night for a hotel room or tens of thousands a month for a vacation rental.
Key West made money during Covid. Were there businesses that closed? You bet, but we never came close to the dire predictions that Covid would decimate the economy of Key West and the Keys. The boom was so fast and so sustained, we can be forgiven for wondering whether keeping up that pace was worth the extra cash.
Let’s revisit, for a moment, the parking spots along Southard. The empty ones are back. All over town, residential and free-to-all spots are easy pickings, a sure sign a lot of folks aren’t here. Hotel room rates are outrageous — but they’re half of what they were a year ago. (I did a totally unscientific, random check of rates posted online and compared that with a similar review last year. Feel free to quibble. Aside: How can any hotel justify a “resort fee” of $45 per night that includes “free local and toll calls”? I mean, doesn’t everyone have a cell phone?”
Reservations remain helpful but instead of a month out, you’re likely to grab one at your preferred time in a couple days. Maybe even today or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you might do a walk-in, though that could still be dicey on weekends. A quick Monday walk through on the OpenTable app told me I could do a civilized dinner that day at most of my favorites.
I’ve said since the beginning of the Covid bonanza that once Europe and other vacation destinations re-opened, Americans who flocked to Key West, willing to pay top dollar, would rethink their vacation plans. For many visitors, a couple trips to Key West are about all they want. Time to check out other places where beaches are better and prices far more manageable.
Are we back to the old days? Definitely not, though perhaps we will have a quieter summer and fall, where things feel sort of normal. I like that; it gives us time to breathe and maybe figure out what we can do to manage the “new” Key West.
You know the one, right? The one where investors bent on making monstrous money bought up the houses, pushed out the workers and are left wondering why they paid millions of dollars for the property and there’s nary a lead carpenter or plumber or a housekeeper or a cook or a painter or a pool “boy” or a landscaper to do the work. Did you buy the insurance? Nah? Well, too bad.