By Sara Matthis, Mandy Miles and Jim McCarthy
Florida Keys airports and hotels remained open as of Wednesday. Bars were instructed by the state to close for the next 30 days and restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity.
Many events have been canceled or rescheduled, but no curfew is in place, nor are mandatory business closures, said Stacey Mitchell, director of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, who emphasized the ever-changing nature of this global beast.
“The Keys were actually pretty busy this past weekend,” Mitchell said.
But things are about to get real quiet in the island chain, she warned, estimating that a decrease in Keys visitors will become noticeable starting this week and next.
“Plus, remember, international visitors comprise 30% of our tourists,” she said. “They won’t be coming back for a while.”
“I think we’re going to see tourism numbers like we see in August and September,” she said, adding that while “no one knows how long this will last, it could be until Memorial Day.”
The question, Mitchell said, becomes how businesses keep employees working. She suggested this week that local restaurant owners consider offering the “local specials and promotions” now rather than waiting until their usual timing in August and September.
“I don’t know if people were ready to hear that, but it would keep workers employed and it would get some customers in the door of a restaurant. They may need to reconfigure or remove some tables to remain within the 50-person limit for gatherings, but there’s no way around it. Every single person in this county will take a financial hit this April. It’s going to come down to locals helping locals.”
In other TDC actions, the agency has added a COVID-19 informational link at the top of its main tourism website at fla-keys.com to provide visitors and those considering a visit with up-to-date information and links to resources.
“We’re not hiding it; it’s in Key lime green at the very top of our landing page,” Mitchell said. “We want people to have as much information as possible.”
The TDC also has “pulled all advertising from our winter feeder markets, mainly the Northeast,” Mitchell said. “First of all, no one up there is listening to our messaging, but we also felt it would be extremely insensitive to advertise our island destination amid the trauma and chaos that people up there are experiencing. So we’ll save those financial resources until it’s appropriate to start promoting to that region again.”
Tourism officials, including Mitchell and PR specialist Andy Newman, also have been meeting with their partner at Tinsley Advertising “to formulate tactics, strategies and messaging for when we do get to the other side of this,” Mitchell said.
Many large events, like the 7-Mile Bridge Run and Mote Ocean Fest in Key West, have either been canceled or postponed.
In Key West, the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center was mandated to close to the public, effective March 14, until the coronavirus crisis is deemed over. On March 15, the Tropic Cinema closed until further notice. The Key West Art & Historical Society museums — the Custom House, Key West Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters, Fort East Martello, and Tennessee Williams Museum — were scheduled to close starting March 17, lasting through
In downtown Key West, the on-and-off Duval Loop bus was to suspend operations starting March 17. While hotel and resort professionals in the Florida Keys are saying there are some cancellations, it isn’t an unmitigated disaster.
“I suppose everything could change again in a matter of hours, but right now I’m not expecting a huge downturn in business,” said one. That person said the first 15 days of the month saw one major resort at 88% occupancy and added that a good estimate might be about 75% occupancy combined with a lower room rate averaging about $200 a night in the months to come.
Marathon Chamber of Commerce CEO Dan Samess is asking his member partners and colleagues to think carefully before closing — whether it’s a restaurant, a hotel or a beach.
“We don’t want a domino effect. Any closure could weaken guests’ confidence in our tourism market,” he said.
The Original Marathon Seafood Festival happened as planned this past weekend. Samess said he is still tabulating the numbers, but said he thinks attendance was off by 20% to 50%.
“Attendance was down, but considering everything that is going on, this is to be expected,” he said. “It was a successful event, and everyone had a good time, and we complied with the health department’s request for extra hand sanitizer, posted notices and hand-washing stations.”
Jodi Weinhofer of the Florida Keys and Key West Lodging Association, said association members are handling the uncertainties of the virus with professionalism and flexibility, recognizing the need to let people cancel or postpone their stays until things get settled. Most brand hotels are waiving cancellation fees for stays through April 30, 2029.
“The good news is our members and hotels understand that they just have to let people cancel,” Weinhofer said. “In general, our clientele is older and wealthier and although we may not have any confirmed cases down here, we don’t know what’s happening wherever they’re coming from. … I’m glad people down here seem to be saying, across the board, that we’ll let you cancel or postpone your reservation.”
The move is to engender goodwill among guests who might cancel this vacation, but consider visiting the Keys on the next vacation.
Business stayed rather busy in Key Largo between the Upper Keys Irish fest and a myriad of cancellations that brought visitors from the mainland down this past weekend.
“We had one of the busiest days on Saturday and this past weekend,” said Elizabeth Moscynski, Key Largo Chamber of Commerce president. “We had people coming in and out all day, and by 5 p.m., we had over 70 people who came in, and that’s very unusual for a Saturday afternoon.”
Why were visitors coming down? Moscynski said their response was they had nothing better to do.
“They were coming in from all over, basically, and it wasn’t just Miami-Dade,” she said.
Moscynski said events have dwindled down other than live entertainment at restaurants. No major festivals or parties are upcoming, with Island Fest, originally planned for March 28-29, canceled and ICE’s Bay Jam Fest, April 5, postponed.
Judy Hull, Islamorada Chamber of Commerce executive director, said many cancellations seen at local resorts over the last week were filled by visitors whose plans changed.
“Cruise lines canceled cruises and the folks who had flown into Fort Lauderdale and Miami for a cruise found themselves with an open schedule,” she said. “They came to the Keys, and in most cases more than filled the cancellations.
Major U.S. cruise lines have voluntarily suspended operations for 30 days due to coronavirus. The port of Key West is still open for marine traffic which includes recreational vessels. The last cruise ship left Key West on March 14. There are about 75 cruise ships homeported in Florida.
Tropic Cinema in Key West and Marathon Cinema in Marathon are closed until further notice.
While there is no indication that resorts will close any time soon, big events are being canceled. For example, a 300-plus person luncheon for Voices for Florida Keys Children at Hawks Cay Resort has been canceled. It was set to occur on March 28 and funds were to be raised to meet the needs of abandoned, neglected and abused children throughout the Keys.