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As Key West Tries To Set Precedents, Tallahassee Lawmakers Say: Not So Fast

An image of the flags in front of Key West City Hall including the state flag, the American flag and the Conch Republic and rainbow flags
Nancy Klingener
At Key West City Hall, the Conch Republic and rainbow flags fly alongside the American and state flags.

Key West is a small island with 25,000 residents — but it keeps finding itself in the crosshairs of the state government in Tallahassee.

In February 2019, Key West became the first place in the mainland U.S. to ban the sale of sunscreens containing two chemicals that have been found to harm corals.

There was opposition to the ban, from dermatologists and from the sunscreen industry.

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Highly produced video ads started circulating in the community, saying a lot of Key Westers work outside so "they need access to the best protection."

"YouTube ads would pop up almost every day if you were watching videos," said Mill McCleary, executive director of Reef Relief, the local environmental group that led the campaign to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Because Reef Relief, unlike the personal care products industry, is locally based, they were able to wage an effective campaign.

"We sent volunteers door to door throughout each city commission district and, over those few months before it went before the commission for a final vote, we were able to generate hundreds of letters from citizens in support of the bill," McCleary said.

Supporters of a ban on sale of sunscreen with two ingredients hold signs in front of Key West City Hall in 2019.
Nancy Klingener
Mill McCleary, right, helped lead the successful campaign for Key West to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban was overturned by the state Legislature.

The city commission approved the ordinance on a 6-1 vote. The environmentalists who supported the ordinance hoped Key West was setting a precedent.

"We thought this would actually build strong momentum to become a statewide mandate," McCleary said.

But the state Legislature had other ideas. Six months after Key West approved its ban, a senator from north central Florida introduced a bill that would block cities from regulating cosmetics. There was no doubt about its target.

"Key West has passed a regulation banning sunscreen" then-Sen. Rob Bradley told a Senate committee in October 2019. "That is a particular concern because of Key West being the place where a lot of people work outside. To discourage those folks who are working outside from using sunscreen to protect themselves is a very very concerning and bad public policy."

The Key West ordinance did not ban sunscreen. It banned the sale of sunscreens containing two ingredients — oxybenzone and octinoxate. There are lots of sunscreens with minerals like zinc that would still be available.

At the end of June, with everyone's attention on the pandemic, Gov. Ron Desantis signed the bill. Key West's ban on some sunscreens was killed before it ever took effect.

Around the same time that the sunscreen ban died, there was a new local campaign in Key West. Cruise ships had stopped sailing because of the pandemic.

A year earlier, about half of Key West's visitors arrived by cruise ship — about a million people.

An image of two cruise ships docked at Key West
Nancy Klingener
In 2019, almost a million people visited Key West by cruise ship — but an industry study said they contributed less than 10 percent of visitor spending.

Those visitors were responsible for less than 10 percent of the dollars tourists spend on the island, according to a cruise industry study. So a group of people in Key West started thinking maybe it was time to change course.

"Big ships don't bring big money to Key West, but they do bring big problems," said Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships.

The committee organized a successful petition drive to get three amendments to the city charter on the November ballot. All three were approved.

Now, no more than 1,500 people a day can visit Key West by cruise ship. No ship with a capacity of more than 1,300 people bring people to the island. And the city is required to give priority to ships with the best health and environmental safety records.

The new limits passed by more than 60 percent, even though opponents funded by the cruise industry had sent out scary-looking flyers claiming that Key West's police and rescue services would be gutted if big cruise ships couldn't come to the island any more. That isn't true — Key West has not cut back on its police or rescue operations.

And just like the sunscreen ordinance, Key West's precedent-setting move got the attention of Tallahassee.

"Key West, we've always been really proactive and really vocal."
Key West Mayor Teri Johnston

State Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, is sponsoring a bill that would take away Key West's power to limit the amount of cruise ship traffic. He told a House subcommittee in Tallahassee earlier this month that Key West voters shouldn’t be allowed to "hold the state of Florida hostage."

"We can't simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the port of Key West," Roach said, "and also saying a million people a year cannot visit the state of Florida and Key West. That's wrong."

Roach also sponsored a version of the bill last year that took away Key West's power to regulate sunscreen to protect corals.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said it's frustrating to watch decisions by local communities undone by the state Legislature, "who basically has zero understanding of local conditions, local impact, local history."

The mayor said she doesn't know why Key West in particular seems to be in the legislative crosshairs two years in a row. Maybe because the island has a habit of trying to determine its own destiny, even if it makes up about one-tenth of 1% of the state population.

"Key West, we've always been really proactive and really vocal," Johnston said.

After all, this is the place that once seceded and declared itself the Conch Republic. It was one of the first places in the country to elect an openly gay mayor, back in the 1980s. The city's been around longer than the state of Florida — by 17 years.

Meanwhile, Reef Relief is still working with the city to get people to choose reef-safe sunscreens.

The override from Tallahassee was disappointing but "that doesn't mean we just give up and just think like, it's just not going to happen," McCleary said.

They're putting up signs in stores telling people to SAY NO to sunscreens with the chemicals Key West was not allowed to ban.

Those signs have a pretty picture of coral - and – the city seal.

A poster urges people in Key West to SAY NO to sunscreens containing two chemicals found to have harmed corals.
City of Key West
Even though Key West is no longer allowed to ban the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate, the city is still working with Reef Relief to discourage people from buying it.

This story is part of our series looking at how state leaders have wielded influence over Florida’s local elected officials – and voters. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as the legislative session continues in Tallahassee.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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