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The timing could not have been worse.

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Key West’s foundation is a community that gives. Underneath the tourism is a fabric that is woven by people from all walks of life, but share common values and an inner strength. As we’ve seen when Hurricane Irma, and the others before that “blew” through and wreaked havoc…the people came through, looked after each other and rebuilt.

This one may well be the toughest challenge yet.  

The overwhelming majority of Key Westers make a living in the service and hospitality industries. Those are the jobs that cannot transition to "work from home." Bartenders, Hotel Workers, Restaurant Servers, Fishing Guides, Boat Mates, Barbers, and Masseuses that rely on personal interactions. Quite a few come from Eastern Europe nations on work visas, live in modest, or employer sponsored housing.

Even in the best of times, it can be tight due to the high cost of housing/expenses and a local economy driven by tourism. Everyone understands that island living requires a certain, “make hay while the sun shines” model, and use that “hay” to sustain during the slower months.

As you’d expect, that season of “hay making” for the local service workers dropped faster than a lead weight in the water. 

During a natural disaster, like Irma, the storm moves through, damage is done…people surface and together start the rebuilding. In COVID, the “storm” arrives, everything shuts down…and it stays. Worse than post-hurricane, you remain “sheltered in place”, wait and watch, and wonder…what’s the pathway to recovery. 

This time, the “rebuild” is about much more than getting the power grid operational, clearing debris, repairing roofs and “reopening” in a week or two. There was no “playbook” for an island dependent on tourism to recover, nor for the service workers to sustain.

It seems though, the fabric that holds this town together in high season, off-season, and post-hurricane is woven from steel. While we have always seen the best rise in tough times, we’re hitting an openness and support from all corners. Front-line health care workers, law enforcement and first responders, town leaders, business owners…and all people living here binding together. As we are also seeing in so many communities across America. 

Everyone understands that the “new normal” is going to be substantially different than any disaster we’ve seen. In the midst of that incredible uncertainty, the town remains “One Human Family” and binds together.   

From the numerous random acts of kindness to the larger, structured support programs it weaves strength, hope and most importantly a “mindset” the we’re all truly in this one together…all of us. (the tuna shot is just to lighten your day)

Here’s a rundown of how this incredible town is supporting each other:

  • Food pantries and community kitchens have become a cornerstone to providing meals, fresh produce and staples to those that need support. Star of the Sea Foundation (http://www.sosmission.org) is responding to unprecedented need and is now serving over 2,500 families per week. All driven by volunteers and donations. Here’s where you can donate, if you are able. O.S. Foundation donation site.
  • Restaurants like Better Than Sex and Garbo's Grill have hosted weekly meal giveaways for community members in need. Even local contractor, “Gary the Carpenter”, has set up a BBQ at his office each Saturday to grill burgers and hot dogs for anyone who needs one. Quite frankly, the list is extensive.
  • Local performers, led by the infamous "Sushi" have repurposed their sewing machines from costume making to face mask production.
  • Key West First Legal Rum company started using the stills to make hand sanitizer instead of rum, even supplying the local hospital.
  • A local couple, in an attempt to reach some of the people that could be hardest hit, paid the May rent for each of the 52 residents living in the City’s mooring field.

The “down time” has been put to good use by sprucing up Duval Street, Simonton and others, repainting Southernmost Buoy and area attractions, plus local businesses “freshening” it up a bit.

The keys have been holding steady with COVID, actually not much new in the lower keys. But, it looks like most of us will be sitting tight for a little bit more. When “the coast is clear”, get on down here. It is certainly the most tropical setting without leaving the country, and the people are sure ready to see you and get back to work. Whatever the “new normal” looks like, one aspect will remain a hard truth…rough times/good times, it’s all about people. 

At this moment, local beaches and parks are re-opening. A few non-essential businesses will be allowed to open soon for locals only. Expect it will be June when more "green lights" come on. So...there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel has sure been looking awfully long. 

Stay vigilant.


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