Can tourism in the Florida Keys keep going with coronavirus concerns?

David Goodhue, Gwen Filosa

The Florida Keys rely heavily on tourists during the winter and spring seasons to get businesses through the rest of the year.

And things are going according to plan, even as other tourist spots shut down over COVID-19, the global pandemic.

Hotels and restaurants are full. The huge Marathon Seafood Festival is still on for this weekend, expecting to draw some 20,000 people to the city’s park.

People are booking charter boats for full and half-day fishing trips. Picnickers are swimming from roadside beaches along Indian Key Fill.

Down in the Keys’ economic jewel, Key West, packs of tourists filled the island this week.

Mayor Teri Johnston pronounced the city open for business as usual. But she added city leaders are staying vigilant, particularly about the cruise ships that frequent Key West.

“As of noon today, our port remains open and safe,” Johnston said Friday. “Should that condition change we will not hesitate to request an immediate port closure to cruise ships.”

And U.S. 1, the only road through the island chain, was lined with traffic this week.

“We have not had a lot of chatter about the virus,” said Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce. “My staff is on alert to notify me if that changes, but for now, everybody seems happy and fairly carefree.”

But President Donald Trump’s announcement Tuesday that the U.S. is limiting travel from Europe puts the rest of the year in doubt, forcing tourism officials to come up with a new strategy to attract tourists to the Keys during the slower summer and fall months.

Mike Ondrasek, a charter fishing boat mate in Islamorada, holds a yelloweye snapper at the cleaning table of the Postcard Inn Resort and Marina Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Mike Ondrasek, a charter fishing boat mate in Islamorada, holds a yelloweye snapper at the cleaning table of the Postcard Inn Resort and Marina Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Those involved in the tourist industry said they’re getting more calls than usual but from people checking if attractions are open in the Keys.

Tourists whose plans have been canceled elsewhere say they’re headed to the Keys, said Scott Atwell, executive vice president and CEO of the Key West Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s sort of a rebound effect we’re getting because people are having difficulty traveling otherwise,” Atwell said Friday. ”That’s good news but we’re still waiting to see that show up in the actual numbers. We do have vacancies. Other than [bed and breakfasts] no one is sold out.”

People may be wary of visiting Europe for awhile, said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West. The Keys could be an alternative.

“It is hurting business, sure,” said Weinhofer, of the travel ban. “Groups and weddings are considering their options. We’re in wait-and-see mode. We certainly have new business coming in.”

The number one priority in Key West is people’s health, said City Manager Greg Veliz. But then there’s the fact that tourism is the island’s livelihood.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever dealt with this before,” said Veliz. “There’s no manual to check. You’ve got to worry about the economics when this thing is all over.”

Some small businesses took an immediate hit.

The 31-room Sugarloaf Lodge, at mile marker 17, had 22 cancellations on Thursday alone from people too concerned about the coronavirus to travel.

The owners know because they asked those who were canceling.

“And they were all from different countries, European countries,” said Caren Ward, whose family has owned the place since the 1960s. “We were full, absolutely full, for the whole month of February and then the first of March happened and the bottom fell out”

The Lodge was down $15,000 the first week of March, Ward said.

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council markets heavily to European countries, enticing people there to spend their summer vacations in the Keys. Europeans typically can take a lot of time off in June, July and August, so the TDC’s advertising efforts have been successful for years.

“That’s probably going to be non-existent this year,” said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Monroe TDC.

A day after Trump’s announcement, Newman said hotels are already reporting cancellations from Europe. In the meantime, Newman expects the rest of what’s known in the Keys as tourist season, which runs roughly through Easter Sunday — April 12 this year — to be busy.

“What happens after, that’s the big question mark,” Newman said.

The TDC meets next week, and Key West and a new marketing strategy in the wake of the European travel ban is on the agenda. Newman said a possibility to compensate for the European tourists is to go after domestic travelers, particularly those in the eastern U.S. who don’t want to fly because of concerns of catching COVID-19 or other illnesses on airplanes.

“If people don’t want to fly, how else are they going to get here?” Newman said.

As of Thursday, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Monroe County.

One man from Manatee County who tested positive, said he contracted the virus on a trip to Key West that ended Feb. 9.

But Keys-based Florida Department of Health officials said they conducted an epidemiological investigation and found no evidence of that claim, according to a TDC memo distributed to Keys businesses Thursday morning.

“Because no other confirmed coronavirus cases have emerged on the island and the incubation period from this case has passed, there is no epidemiological evidence that the patient’s infection originated in Key West,” the memo states.

Liz Hillenbrand, of Oneida, New York, and Gretchen Hull, of Branford, Florida, pose near cannons that line the shore of Whale Harbor Marina in Islamorada, Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Liz Hillenbrand, of Oneida, New York, and Gretchen Hull, of Branford, Florida, pose near cannons that line the shore of Whale Harbor Marina in Islamorada, Thursday, March 12, 2020.

“We are testing in Monroe County, and so far, the tests have come back negative,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi, in a statement Friday saying the county is doing everything it can to monitor coronavirus.

But Gastesi said the crisis is like none other he has experienced.

“I have done five hurricanes, an oil spill, and several other public health emergencies in my 30 years of public service and this is by the far the most challenging because of the its uncertainty,” Gastesi said.

In the Upper Keys, tourist hot spots like Robbie’s Marina on Lower Matecumbe Key and Whale Harbor Marina on Windley Key were packed this week.

Friends Liz Hillenbrand, of Oneida, New York, and Gretchen Hull, of Branford Florida, walked around Whale Harbor in the sun Thursday afternoon, taking photos by a sculpture of two marlin and old cannons that line the shoreline of the oceanside property. They stopped there in Hull’s RV on their way down for a four-day stay on Big Pine Key.

The women say they are not too concerned about COVID-19, and their respective careers — Hillenbrand a hospital nurse and Hull an early-childhood educator — taught them that good hygiene is essential to staying healthy all the time.

“I went to Costa Rica last week, and I had to take a plane there and back,” Hillenbrand said. “And, I went to work for three days, and now I’m here. I wash my hands and keep tidy hygiene. I am not afraid.”

Said Hull: “She’s a nurse and I taught young kids, 5 and 6 year olds, so I’m used to washing my hands.”

Bill and Darlene Jacobi, of northern Virginia, walk along the docks of Whale Harbor Marina in Islamorada Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Bill and Darlene Jacobi, of northern Virginia, walk along the docks of Whale Harbor Marina in Islamorada Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Bill and Darlene Jacobi flew to Fort Lauderdale from their home in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., earlier this week and drove to the Keys for the day Thursday. They sat at a picnic table at Whale Harbor watching people on personal watercraft speed from the marina out into the ocean.

They said when they left Virginia, the situation with COVID-19 “was just simmering.”

“It wasn’t this explosion of closings and cancellations and schools being out,” Bill Jacobi said. “We planned on coming here anyway, so it didn’t deter us.”

Darlene added that no matter what happens, she’s not going to let it ruin their vacation.

“We’re just hoping for the best, and if anything happens, we’ll find out about it when we get home,” she said.

Looking out into the clear blue water where Whale Harbor Channel leads to the popular sandbar, Bill Jacobi appeared to take to his wife’s philosophy.

“Actually the virus is the furthest thing from your mind when you’re standing here,” he said. “Look at this.”

Some businesses, however, have said they’re already starting to experience COVID-19 fallout.

Larry Wren, captain of First Choice Charters had one cancellation this week from a client who cited his northern New Jersey company’s travel policy amid the virus.

“He said all company personnel are on restricted travel due to fear of the virus,” Wren said.

Fortunately, the man was part of a larger corporate group that prepaid for several charter boats, and so far, he is the only one to opt out.

Paul Johnson, captain of the Gold Reserve charter boat, holds a beer and talks to his friends at the fish cleaning station at Post Card Inn and Marina on Windley Key Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Paul Johnson, captain of the Gold Reserve charter boat, holds a beer and talks to his friends at the fish cleaning station at Post Card Inn and Marina on Windley Key Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Other charter boat captains in the area said the season is going well, and they hope COVID-19 concerns don’t derail the rest of it.

“It’s starting to pick up. It’s a lot better than Labor Day when they told everybody to leave because of Dorian,” said Paul Johnson, captain of the Gold Reserve. He was referring to Hurricane Dorian, which in late August was forecast to hit Martin County and flood the Keys because it coincided with abnormally high tides in the area that time of year.

Dorian had little to no impact in the Keys, but county officials nevertheless asked tourists to leave the island chain the Friday of Labor Day weekend as a precaution, but did not issue an evacuation. Still, some businesses felt cheated by the move, depriving them of a busy three-day weekend amid the slow season.

On Thursday Johnson drank a Landshark beer as he watched his fellow Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina charter boat fishermen clean their catch for the day, yellow eye snapper.

“Landshark kills coronavirus,” he said.