The Sunshine Economy: Closing The Keys To Fight Coronavirus

Mar 30, 2020

Fifty percent unemployment? 

That's the guess from Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi. 

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No place in Florida is as economically exposed to the public health measures taken in the fight against the coronavirus as the Florida Keys. About half of the workforce in Monroe County works in tourism.

Or — worked. The Keys, like the rest of Florida, is closed to tourists. It should be the height of tourist season with tens of thousands of visitors crowding into the Keys each week, but instead, it’s quiet.

"We were used to hearing the diesel engines every morning going out from Bud and Mary's Marina," said Jim Bernardin, owner of Pines and Palms Resort in Islamorada. "It's just a gentle roar as they all head to the bait patch every morning. It's been just eerily quiet every single morning, not hearing those boats go out."

The cornerstone industry in the Keys is closed. The tourism business across the state has ground to a halt, throwing hundreds of thousands of Floridians out of their jobs. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association estimates more than a quarter of a million people in the industry have filed for unemployment. And there are countless others waiting, unsure, or unable to become part of the official numbers.

 

Checkpoints are up on the Overseas Highway and Card Sound Road into the Keys allowing in only residents and essential visitors.

 

"For those folks that would normally be crowding Monroe County right now — stay away. Don't come," said Gastesi.

 

Confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide have continued growing. The death toll has kept climbing. And new measures designed to slow down the spread of the virus slow down the movement of people, and bring tourism businesses to their knees.

 

Tricia Coyne laid off about 20 employees at the restaurant she owns in Key West, Firefly. It was an effort to preserve the business, she said, after restaurant dining rooms were ordered closed, and allowed only to do take-out and delivery.

 

With its doors opening out onto Duval and Greene Streets in Key West, Sloppy Joe's Bar symbolizes the carefree, carnival spirit of the Keys. It takes 115 people to keep it going. All but 10 have been let go as the bar begins its third week of economic abstinence.
 

"It's always interesting to be in that room when you're in there by yourself," said Brand Manager Donna Edwards. "It's lonely. It's eerie looking down Duval Street. It's different."

 

Not a Hurricane

 

COVID-19 is not a like hurricane. The Keys is not closed to visitors as it awaits a natural disaster and its aftermath. It can't rely on supplies from elsewhere since the coronavirus is a global pandemic. There's no "cone of uncertainty" — or if there is, everyone is included.

 

"The difference between the hurricane and this is that you don't know when this is going to end," said Islamorada Village Councilwoman Deb Gillis. She also owns two motels on the Overseas Highway. "When I've talked to people, they seem to understand that we need to get back open as soon as possible. But if we open too early, we're going to have a second round of infection. So we need to not do that."

Gillis has 13 employees, most of them working part-time. She has cut hours by about 25 percent and expects to have to cut again the longer the shutdown continues. She's using money she socks away for hurricanes to help keep paying her bills. Of course, that means her hurricane savings may be low or empty by the time storm season begins in June.

"The entire economy of the Keys is pretty much shut down," said Bernardin. He said his bank has offered to defer a few months of mortgage payments. He's thinking about it while he looks through the just-approved federal stimulus bills for what loan or grant programs he may be eligible for.

Capt. Will Benson has led sport fishing trips around the Keys for more than 20 years. He said his business has come to a complete stop with efforts to slow the spread COVID-19 such as closing the Keys to all but residents and essential visitors.
Credit courtesy: World Angling

Sport Fishing

The tourism business touches a lot more than restaurants, bars and hotels and the people who work at them. There are thousands of others who entertain tourists, transport them and take them out on the water.

 

"Completely overnight, my entire business and my entire season came to a complete stop," said Captain Will Benson of sport fishing charter company World Angling. "For the forseeable future, I don't know when I'm going to back to work."

 

March through July are important months for the sport fishing business. Schools of tarpon visit the shallow waters of the Keys, inciting anglers and tourists up and down the island chain.

 

Bay and Reef Company owner Xavier Figueredo has had more than 30 reservations canceled through May. " We're basically done for a couple of months," he said.