No Cases In The Keys Yet, But Islands Are Starting To Feel The Coronavirus Impact In Tourism

Mar 12, 2020

Posted at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12

One of the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus is travel. And the Florida Keys — while having no confirmed cases as of Thursday afternoon — are already feeling the effects.

About five million people a year visit the Keys. March, when college students and families go somewhere warm for spring break, is the most lucrative month — at least according to the taxes collected on hotels and other vacation lodging.

Hotels are definitely busy now. They're processing lots of cancellations and refunds for people who are deciding to stay home.

The travel ban from Europe will also have an impact. About 30 percent of the visitors to the Keys come from outside the U.S., including Canada. Officials from the county Tourist Development Council said they could not break down the percentage that comes from the European Union.

While events around the country and the region are canceling in order to slow down the spread of coronavirus, as of Thursday afternoon the biggest annual event in the Middle Keys was still on. The Original Marathon Seafood Festival is set to take place on Saturday and Sunday, March 14 and 15.

The festival normally draws 15 to 18,000 people over two days. Organizers say they are taking extra precautions for hygiene and have been in touch with the local health department and county emergency management officials about the event.

Keys hotels are seeing cancelations due to the coronavirus, but some spring breakers are still making it to the islands.
Credit Key West Police Department

Those precautions include sanitizing stations for every portable toilet, 10,000 wipes for cleaning hands and disposable gloves for volunteers and food and beverage servers, said Daniel Samess, CEO of the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce.

"Compared to what we're seeing with the Ultra fest and large sporting events — those are all hundred thousand-plus people events, literally 10 to 20 times our size," Samess said. "Our park is very spacious. It is not crowded. Even at our busiest times in past years, it doesn't get to where you're on top of people."

Samess said hotels in the Middle Keys are at about 80 percent occupancy.

"People are here," he said. "They're doing stuff already. It's not like the Keys are empty and we're going to bring in all these net new people."

To keep up to date on the status of the festival, check the event's Facebook page.

Samess said the cancellations are more of a concern for hotels in April.

"That is what we're concerned about, is what's ahead," he said.

That concern is both for the business owners and the front-line service workers like hotel housekeepers, front desk staff, waiters and bartenders.

"It's less shifts for them. And then it's less tips, less earnings," he said. "It really is a double whammy."

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