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Key West COVID Recovery Plan: More Help With Food And Housing, Less Hassle For Doing Business Outside

a performer balances a bike on his head at mallory square in key west - site of the nightly sunset celebration
Gwen Filosa
Miami Herald
Part of the Key West recovery plan is easing back on fees for performers and artists at Sunset Celebration, a nightly gathering at Mallory Square in Key West.

Much of the economy in South Florida relies on tourism — especially the Florida Keys. And that's another way people have been suffering during the coronavirus. The city of Key West has a recovery plan that focuses on both business and humanitarian needs.

Elisa Levy is a management consultant who lives in Key West. She was hired by the city to put together a long-range strategic plan — but realized that first, the city needed a plan to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

She started out by collecting both data and stories in a series of round tables. The data included asking nonprofits that provide food and housing assistance how much longer they could keep going.

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"It turns out [it was] very lucky we asked that question because the housing agencies had about three months left of funding. Some of them had actually run out already. And in food, it was about the same, about two to three months," Levy said.

The stories added qualitative information to that picture, like when Levy asked a roundtable of teachers about the biggest problem they faced.

"They said, 'kids not eating on the weekends.' And of course I said, 'you know, I don't understand this,'" Levy said.

The Star of the Sea and several other nonprofits were still giving out food.

"You need to hear the stories, you need to understand the deeper reasons," Levy said. "You can't fix the problem until you understand some of the reasons."

That revelation led to a new project — a backpack program that will provide easy-to-prepare food, that will help tide kids and families over on weekends and holidays.

Closing the information gap

It was also one of many instances where the task force found an information gap between what people believed and what resources were available.

That was true for mental health services, as well as help with electricity bills and other assistance. In many cases, the agencies or nonprofits had put out a press release about their programs — but the people who needed it most did not see it.

Task force members raised money to pay someone who will work on communications, in several languages and multiple formats, to get the word out about how people can get help.

"There's probably a million and a half dollars worth of services, at least, floating around in this community that people could access that they don't know about," Levy said. "There's nothing worse than having something available to someone in need and not being able to let them know it's there."

The task force also recommended — and the city has already started — helping businesses by removing the fare from the Duval Loop bus service, encouraging outdoor events and reducing the rents paid by performers and artists at the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square.

Sunset Celebration is a signature event that brings a lot of business to downtown Key West, Levy said.

"After sunset, what do most people do? They wander into Old Town, they go have something to eat, maybe have a drink at a bar, poke around the shops. So there's like a good fallout effect," she said.

And she said Sunset Celebration is a safe event during a pandemic.

"It's outside. And it's so big that people can actually social distance quite easily," she said.

There were some discussions among the task force about encouraging people to travel during the pandemic. The task force addressed that by asking the city to make it easier to hold outdoor events.

"They created an application, a safety procedure and protocol, and they've put it online and they've agreed to fast-track, meaning if anyone comes to them they will try and get the approval through quickly for them, make it easy," Levy said. "But at the same time, the safety application and the safety protocol is pretty stringent. You can't have more than a certain number of people, there has to be stands set up, there has to be social distance, all of these requirements. So I think the answer is, you can do both."

The information collected for the recovery plan also went to the Monroe County commission, which decided last week to provide $315,000 in CARES Act funding for food distribution in the Keys.