Going to the Florida Keys for the holidays? Some things to know before hitting Duval Street

Gwen Filosa

The kids are home from school. You’re off from work. And everyone’s eager to get out of the house during the holidays.

If you’re planning a quick trip to the Keys, note that COVID-19 has changed some of the rules. You’ll need to bring a mask, for one. Also, despite the pandemic, the crowds are returning to Key West, and Duval Street has been crowded.

Although some events have been canceled, the bars and beaches are open, along with most attractions. Unlike in Miami-Dade, there are no curfews.

But you’ll want to know the following so you’re prepared with the changes brought by the pandemic:

Mask laws in the Florida Keys

Monroe County, that means the entire Florida Keys, has a mask ordinance requiring people to always carry a mask when out in public and to wear it outside when they can’t social distance.

But in Key West, the mask rules are stricter.

Key West’s mask law orders everyone over age 6 to carry a mask when away from home and wear one outside whether or not they can social distance. That means wear one while walking the dog or taking a stroll on Duval Street.

There are a list of exceptions in Key West, including when seated at a restaurant or bar, when in cars or on private boats and when engaged in “strenuous” exercise at the gym, provided you can social distance. Brides and grooms may remove masks when exchanging vows and posing for photos.

Civil and criminal penalties are attached to Key West’s mask ordinance, including fines of up to $500 and a jail stay of up to 60 days. Police officers are instructed to give warnings first, though.

A couple walks through Mallory Square in Key West during Sunset Celebration.
A couple walks through Mallory Square in Key West during Sunset Celebration.

The COVID-19 numbers

As of Tuesday, the Keys had 3,157 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 27 deaths. Percent positivity for new cases decreased from 9.26% to 5.48%. The county’s population is about 74,000.

Monroe County has the third-highest rate of transmission in Florida, with 65.6 cases per 100,000 people as of Nov. 23, according to data from Harvard University.

Restaurants and bars are open

Key West and the rest of the Keys have no special restrictions on capacity at restaurants and bars. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sept. 25 lifted statewide COVID-19-related restrictions on businesses. That included restaurants and bars.

There are no curfews in the Keys.

People watch the sunset from Mallory Square in Key West.
People watch the sunset from Mallory Square in Key West.

Room availability

In Key West, some hotel owners say they’re not seeing extraordinary occupancy numbers but they’re hopeful for the weekend.

“We are getting some anecdotal reports that we’re going to have a really, really busy holiday weekend,” Scott Atwell, executive vice president and CEO of the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce, said on Tuesday.

Atwell said he didn’t immediately have occupancy estimates. The highest lodging occupancy rates lately have been in the low 80s, Atwell said.

“I haven’t seen a weekend since COVID where we were at 100 percent capacity,” Atwell said. “Not across the board. We’ve had some hotels at 100 percent capacity.”

Atwell said some hotel owners have wondered if the people already in town are staying at Airbnb rentals.

Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, said hotel and motel rooms are usually sold out leading up to holiday weekends, including Thanksgiving weekend, but not this year.

“We still have a good inventory of rooms available for this weekend. And, the weather looks perfect,” Hull said. “It should be a great weekend to travel to the Keys and enjoy some safe time on the water.”

Some events have been canceled

Key West scratched its annual Holiday Parade this year due to the pandemic and is holding both the lighting of the city’s Christmas tree and the menorah on Facebook Live only.

The city has canceled special events on city property through Dec. 31.

As for the famous New Year’s Eve red shoe drop starring drag queen Sushi on Duval Street outside the Bourbon Street Pub, the city’s mayor says it’s still up in the air.

“At the end of the day, it is going to be the City Commission’s decision,” Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said. “We are going to make a decision within the next week. Realistically, we are spiking. The goal is to not bring in massive groups of people. Based on our spike it would be difficult.”

In the Upper Keys, the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce’s 16th Annual Holiday Festival was also canceled this year.

Keys weather

The island chain’s famous holiday season weather is in full play this week. For the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the forecasts for Key West call for sunny skies with temperatures around 80 degrees, according to the Weather Channel.

Staff writer David Goodhue contributed to this report.