Grumble Season is fewer than 10 days away. That gives me a 10-day window to wrap up the 2023 Key West summer, followed by three months of Grumble Season, in which I am inclined toward cross words while I wait for December, which is a great month to live in Key West.
Grumble Season arrives in Key West in tandem with the Autumn Equinox on Sept. 23. It lasts until that Saturday in December when the Key West Holiday Parade trundles merrily across the island. By the end of September we are just plain “done” with the dregs of summer. We are moldy, tetchy and vexatious from worrying about hurricanes, humidity, heat, stinky garbage cans and sweat-wet clothes.
The Grumble Seasons of 2020, 2021 and 2022 were particularly grumble-y because, thanks to Covid crowds, we never got our traditional recovery time (even if we do grumble) between the end of summer and the holiday parade.
And that, those Covid crowds, brings me to the things that didn’t happen this summer: (1) crowds; (2) economic stability; and (3) sargassum. Two of the three will likely affect the future of the island. The third, the sargassum, was a meteorological fluke.
Key West summer | The vanishing Covid crowds
1. We didn’t get Covid crowds this summer: Beginning on June 1, 2020, when the roadblock into the Keys was lifted, and ending around Easter on April 9, 2023, Key West and the Florida Keys were the vacation destination for folks escaping Covid lockdowns and foreign travel restrictions. We may have railed against the mask-wash-distance free-for-all that was Florida during the Covid years, but that cavalier approach sure paid the bills.
For three years, it was high season every month. No price was too high. Visitors paid whatever was asked for rooms, vacation rentals, entertainment, charters, food and fun. They barely balked at lines that wrapped around the block at popular venues. Giddy homeowners who’d planned to stay in Key West forever up and sold their houses to the highest bidders and left with a windfall.
Though anyone working for a living was exhausted, pocketbooks were heavy and that almost made up for the entitled tourists.
And. Then. It. Just. Stopped. By deep summer 2023, parking spaces sat vacant, lines disappeared, tips dried up, house prices stagnated and “for rent” signs popped up on fences with an inkling that the days of infinite increases might be past.
If one thought the Covid-fueled revenue ride would last forever, one likely was caught sorely flat footed. Those three years were heady times for making a living, and their end destabilized the island economy, even if we hesitate to admit it.
Key West summer | Economic stability at risk
2. We didn’t achieve economic stability: The three Covid boom years helped disguise the brewing perfect storm that will challenge Key West’s service-demanding economy. That storm includes a cadre of retiring local business owners who held on during Covid. They built their businesses as young ones, weathered the vagaries of sole proprietorship, withstood the onslaught of Covid and now see a path forward to retiring. Do you blame them?
They’re strong threads of the island’s fabric and as they leave the economy, sell to out-of-town owners, reconfigure their business models or simply close the doors with a “gone fishing” sign, the loss of local business owners will shift the economy — and undermine our sense of community.
The storm that threatens our economic stability includes a vast black hole where once there were seemingly limitless retail and service workers and a middle class of professionals, managers, white collars, blue collars and people with mad skills. Jobs — even with good pay — go begging because there are too few career opportunities; too little housing, much less affordable housing, in which to raise a family; too fragile a sense of community. Folks are retiring or relocating — always with regret because they love the island — and there are few, if any, to backstop them.
I texted “my AC guy” Monday night. He texted back: “Sold the house and moved to Vero Beach.” I am sad for my air conditioning; I am delighted for him. But whether one loses a longtime “guy,” a doctor or a friend, the exodus of the island’s once-stable, family-based population is an escalating and unsettling reality.
3. And, then there was the sargassum: A fluke of nature, the record-breaking sargassum mass broke apart, thanks to a couple of late spring, hurricane-type storms. Neither those storms nor the sargassum made it to shore. Good news, indeed. It’s not much reassurance given the other two, but in Grumble Season, I’ll take what I can get as I hunt up another “guy.”