Not surprisingly, cruise ships and COVID snagged more Key West headlines in 2021 than any other topics (surprise, surprise). But there was plenty of other news — good and bad — to fill the rest of the year’s 52 papers with local people, places, issues, events and opinions.
The following is a month-by-month rundown of some of the top Key West headlines, events and issues from the past year. Digital versions of the stories referenced below are available at keysweekly.com.
Remember when the new year was still in its infancy, and we expected to be looking back at COVID in 2021? That clearly didn’t happen. But the news did get better for a bit when vaccines and stimulus checks made their way to the Florida Keys. Of course, relief over vaccine availability for senior citizens quickly gave way to frustration with Florida’s inadequate online appointment portal.
Then Florida Sen. Jim Boyd filed a bill to void the island city’s voter-approved cruise ship reductions and so began Key West’s Great Cruise Ship Debate.
Also in January:
- Sam Steele sworn in as county’s youngest tax collector
- U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez speaks with Keys Weekly during Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot
- Former County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, who was narrowly defeated by Republican Eddie Martinez, continues her legal challenge of Martinez’s residency in District 3 and thus his eligibility to hold the seat.
- Key West police are called to the Simonton Street home of newly elected County Commissioner Eddie Martinez for a domestic disturbance.
By February, COVID vaccines were still being made available based on age and vulnerability. School buildings remained closed and Florida Keys parents were getting agitated, wanting to know if their kids could return to the classrooms before the summer break.
Also in February:
- Debate begins about the name of the public housing complex formerly known as Porter Place Apartments in Key West and its namesake, JY Porter’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
- Oxitec continues preparations for its genetically modified mosquito control trial in the Keys despite concerns and opposition from some residents and community groups.
By springtime, Key West’s cruise ship debate continued to divide the island as Sen. Jim Boyd’s bill to overturn the city’s new ship limits looked likely to pass in the Florida Legislature, having survived three committee votes. Safer Cleaner Ships representatives, along with Mayor Teri Johnston, flew to Tallahassee in a private plane to oppose the bill and picket the governor’s mansion.
Meanwhile, back on the homefront, Key West welcomed college spring break visitors back to its beaches, boats and bars, and the city’s hugely popular bocce league was able to resume play with new COVID protocols in place.
Also in March:
- Monroe County School District is cleared in a lawsuit involving the arrest and attempt by Key West police to handcuff a troubled 8-year-old boy.
- Country music star Lee Brice signs Key West music man Nick Norman to his Pump House Records label
- A bill regulating liveaboard boaters prompts debate in Tallahassee and Key West that continues today
- Residency questions continue for County Commissioner Eddie Martinez; stepdaughter swears in affidavit that Martinez does not live in District 3
- Keys Weekly welcomes Charlotte Twine as senior staff writer
The city of Key West was in need of a new city manager by April, when then-City Manager Greg Veliz announced he would leave City Hall at the end of May to work for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority. City commissioners appointed Assistant City Manager Patti McLauchlin to serve as interim manager upon Veliz’s departure while they decided how to find a permanent replacement.
Also in April:
- Keys tourism and bed tax revenues bounce back
- Vaccine eligibility opens to anyone 18 and older
- Senator Jim Boyd’s bill to overturn Key West’s cruise ship referendum falters in Tallahassee, but is added to a larger transportation bill that awaits the governor’s approval
- Rams Head brings big music back to Key West Amphitheater with Sammy Hagar concert
- Local musicians play benefit concert for legendary musician Bill Blue
- John Spottswood inducted into Florida Law Enforcement Hall of Fame
- Worker shortages reach epidemic levels in the Florida Keys
- Porter Place public housing complex is renamed to Lang Milian Apartments due to J.Y. Porter’s KKK connections
- Key West International Airport reveals plans for a new concourse, covered jetways and an expanded departure lounge
- College of the Florida Keys introduces new tortuga (turtle) mascot — Shel the Tuga
While Key West’s interim City Manager Patti McLauchlin settled into the big office at City Hall and took the (supposedly) temporary reins, the city commission hired a consultant to conduct a statewide or national search.
And here at the Key West Weekly, The Bubbas: Key West People’s Choice Awards returned with a vengeance and opened nominations for awards in more than 80 categories following a modified version in 2020 due to COVID restrictions and closures.
Also in May:
- State transportation bill officially voids Key West’s cruise ship referendums
- Monroe County School Board pumps the brakes on employee housing at Sugarloaf School after developer reveals disappointingly high rent prices
- Poinciana Gardens assisted-living facility needs financial assistance to stay afloat
- Keys hotels, though shorthanded, enjoy some of the highest room rates in the nation
- Key West High School’s Class of 2021 graduates at Key West’s Coffee Butler Amphitheater
A few good things have come from the coronavirus pandemic, including Key West’s approval of outdoor dining at sidewalk cafes. After initial backlash from restaurants over the proposed fees that would have been the most expensive in the state, city management sat down with restaurant owners to devise a workable plan.
Also in June:
- Patti McLauchlin becomes Key West’s first official female city manager
- School district again talks about employee housing at Trumbo Road headquarters
- Keys tourism flourishes in face of COVID
- County Commissioner Craig Cates proposes plan to save Poinciana Gardens assisted-living facility — and money — by closing the smaller Bayshore Manor.
- Larry Schmiegel named Key West High School principal
The Key West city commission on July 15 directed City Manager Patti McLauchlin to tell large cruise ships they’re not welcome in Key West. Mayor Teri Johnston and the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships were adamant that the voter-approved limits should apply to all three port facilities despite City Attorney Shawn Smith’s repeated warnings about the legal ramifications of restricting private business and violating the city’s 27-year contract with Pier B, which pays the city 25% of its cruise ship revenues.
Meanwhile, 90 miles south of Key West, COVID concerns prompt rare public protests in Cuba that garnered widespread support from the Keys island chain and launched the #soscuba hashtag.
Also in July:
- Key West’s legendary piano man Barry Cuda pushes his last piano across Duval Street
- Dan Dombroski, former executive director of the Southernmost Boys & Girls Club, is arrested for allegedly stealing $41,000 from the nonprofit
- Country star Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line sits down with the Key West Weekly to discuss his new solo album
- Welcome back, gold friend: Divers find gold coin on 1622 shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha
- Voting reaches fever pitch for The Bubbas: Key West People’s Choice Awards
- The Bubbas Awards gala returns to Key West Theater following a 2020 COVID hiatus
- Sublime rocks Key West Amphitheater
August 2021 saw the United States’ tragically inelegant withdrawal from Afghanistan as the extremist Taliban returned to power after 20 years of American protection and improvements in the country. The Keys Weekly spent time speaking with local veterans who had served in Afghanistan, many of whom were gravely concerned about their Afghan friends, drivers and translators who were left behind.
Also in August:
- Key West seeks outside attorney for cruise ship defense; Safer Cleaner Ships committee claims one law firm has a conflict of interest
- Tentative deal struck among Key West, Monroe County and Key West Housing Authority to save Poinciana Gardens assisted-living facility
- Air travel hits turbulence at Key West International Airport due to long delays staffing shortages and an overcrowded departure area
- School district breaks ground on new Sugarloaf School
- Salary study shows City of Key West pays 12 to 17% less than Monroe County and local utilities
- Keys hotels lose staff to labor investigation
- Trapper the rescued sea turtle returns to the ocean
- Census shows population rise of nearly 10,000 people in 10 years
In September, Key West shifted its attention, temporarily, from COVID and cruise ships to a condominium with structural concerns. Key West’s chief building official demanded proof that the Santa Clara Condominiums building was safe for habitation in light of significant structural concerns. The 110-unit building on Northside Drive received a reprieve from condemnation, but had to agree to submit a repair timeline and frequent updates from the building’s engineer.
Also in September:
- Keys Weekly reveals Florida’s voting laws fail to define any residency requirements.
- Underwater 9/11 memorial installed on Vandenberg shipwreck off Key West
- 13 KWHS students chosen for NYC film festival
- 2 men arrested for alleged sexual assault on same woman in separate attacks
- Key West passes 5.5% tax hike (budget does not include cruise ship attorney fees)
- Governor appoints Holly Raschein to fill the late Mike Forster’s county commission seat
Key West’s cruise ship conversation changed course a bit in October, when some elected officials started using words like compromise once the city learned that Safer Cleaner Ships’ preferred lawyer, Joe Jacquot, had a conflict and could not help represent the city. Commissioner Sam Kaufman suggested formal mediation among the main stakeholders, including Safer Cleaner Ships and private business interests, such as Pier B marina, the Key West Harbor pilots and Caribe Nautical ships’ agent.
Also in October:
- School district and state attorney warn that TikTok challenges will be aggressively prosecuted
- Keys Weekly welcomes Alex Rickert as editor of the Marathon edition
- Twisted Tinsel year-round Christmas store opens in The Shops at Mallory
- Grieving parents dedicate park benches in Bahama Village to young lives lost to violence
- Key West moves ahead with housing on College Road
- Keys women share their breast cancer battles
- Schools worry about truancy numbers in light of COVID
- Casey Arnold releases Key West Monopoly game
- Fantasy Fest returns, minus parade and other events
- Traffic crash claims 2 lives: SUV driver kills woman on moped; then shoots himself
November brought all manner of news to the island city — good, bad and bizarre.
On Nov. 27, two cruise ships visited Key West for the first time since March 2020, one at Mallory Pier, one at Pier B.
And in a disconcerting legislative stunt, an unnamed Florida politician filed an anonymous bill to abolish the City of Key West and transfer all of its assets to Monroe County. (The proposed legislation has gone nowhere, but did set the city’s simmering pot of cruise ship contention to a rolling boil.)
On a lighter note, Key West Weekly’s fearless leader Britt Myers scored interviews with two of the hottest bands around, Black Pumas and Tedeschi Trucks Band, both of whom played sold-out concerts at local venues in November.
Key West Weekly Editor Mandy Miles introduced readers to VFC-111, Naval Air Station Key West’s resident fighter jet squadron whose pilots get to play the bad guys during training exercises. We saluted local veterans on Nov. 11, welcomed the powerboat races back to town and broke the news that the Spottswood family would buy the historic Curry Mansion from the Amsterdam family.
Also in November:
- Legendary Pepe’s Cafe passes the torch to new owners Danny and Maura Hughes
- Bayshore Manor assisted-living residents move into much newer Poinciana Gardens
- ZZ Top rocks Key West Amphitheater; Kid Rock makes surprise guest appearance
In more recent history, ‘twas the holiday season in Key West and all was merry and bright — provided one didn’t mention cruise ships, masks or national politics.
On Dec. 9, Safer Cleaner Ships organized a large demonstration on land and sea to oppose the arrival of a cruise ship at Pier B that exceeded the capacity limits that voters approved, but state lawmakers overturned.
Key West celebrated the long-awaited opening of the new Community Health Inc. (CHI) health care center in Bahama Village, and officials are currently encouraging local voters to support the Jan. 18 referendum that will allow affordable housing to be built at Truman Waterfront.
The Key West holiday parade made a spectacular return after COVID canceled the 2020 event. And a full calendar of holiday performances, tours, boat parades, tree lighting and Santa photos filled Key Westers’ dance cards.
Also in December:
- Key West pays tribute to World AIDS Day
- Friends and relatives honor the lost lives of 3 Key West icons: Cheryl Cates, Paul Worthington and Jon Allen.
- Black Pumas christen renewed Parade Grounds at Fort East Martello during COAST Is Clear Music & Arts Festival
- “Pope of Trash” John Waters sits down with the Keys Weekly before his Christmas show at Key West Theater
- Deputies arrested for fighting with Navy sailors on Duval
- Manuel Cabeza’s family thanks Key West 100 years after his death at the hands of the KKK