COVID-19, a windless hurricane in the Florida Keys

By Alberto Domingo Carreiro

Key West, Florida, Apr 20 (efe-epa).- With the memory of Hurricane Irma still fresh, the Florida Keys, the chain of tourist-welcoming paradise islands between the United States and Cuba, are now isolated from the world and socially distanced yet find themselves at the center of an invisible and windless hurricane.

The coronavirus is “like a hurricane,” and although everyone is going through it badly due to lack of money they’re doing all they can and “We’re much more tolerant in this situation than the rest of the country,” Jay O’Neal, the chef at Willie T’s restaurant in Key West, told EFE.

The Keys have been closed to outsiders since March 22, something that didn’t happen even after Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that blasted the area in September 2017.

Seventeen people died in the storm and more than 4,000 houses were destroyed or damaged. From Sept. 19 to Oct. 1 of that year, non-residents were not allowed to set foot in the Keys, where the tourist sector provides 44 percent of the economic activity.

Nowadays, like back then, tourists stand out by their very absence. Key West – which was the refuge for Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, President Harry Truman and hundreds of Cuban independence supporters when Cuba belonged to Spain and now is a mecca for lovers of warm winters and relaxed and uninhibited spots – looks like a ghost town.

Although brimming with activity in years past, the main streets of the historic downtown zone of Key West are empty except for a few locals who venture out to get groceries, ride their bikes or take a stroll or run in the open air.

Like other places in locked-down Florida, people may only leave their homes to go to work in essential jobs, buy food or necessary items or exercise.

Tourists have been replaced by roosters, chickens and doves, which have taken over the benches at streetside dining spots, the town squares and the vacant tourist attractions looking for – but not finding – tidbits to peck at.

According to the latest official tourism statistics, in 2018 the Keys welcomed 5.13 million visitors and the tourist sector provided work for 26,500 people, bringing in some $2.4 billion.

For the past few weeks, the few shopkeepers who have gone in to their stores have been doing so to do their accounting or other managerial tasks.

Israeli Erin Brets, who manages a small clothing and souvenir shop on Front Street, one of Key West’s key tourist destinations, said that if the Keys don’t open up again to tourism “there won’t be any business for the next six months.”

Brets wants to see economic and tourist activity brought back right away, an idea that some Florida politicians have in mind despite the fact that the state’s Covid-19 cases are still on the rise, with some 26,000 confirmed cases so far and 764 deaths.

“You can go with a mask (to stores), you can walk with a mask, and everything … But I’ve gotta have a business, so I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Probably we’re gonna lose the business, everybody,” he told EFE.

O’Neal, who was born in Baltimore but has lived in Key West for two decades, is of the opposite opinion, saying that it would be “stupid” to return to normality right now.

The quarantine – he said – could be one of the reasons why the town so far has not been hit as badly as other places by Covid-19 with 73 cases and three deaths.

In the Keys, “which is different from the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world, you can’t quarantine an area. We were able to basically quarantine the Keys. … It should not be open unless they have precautions to make people feel safe,” O’Neal said.

After tourism, one of the hardest-hit economic sectors is the local fishing industry, which – with the closure of restaurants and hotels – has lost two of its main sources of income.

Many fishermen can barely “cover expenses” because with the plunge in demand the price of their fish has dropped by more than a dollar per pound.

Cuban Jorge Concepcion said that his expenses remain the same but the sales price for his fish has gone down “too much.”

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