Tens of thousands of people will be somewhere in Key West on New Year’s Eve, but city officials haven’t decided on crowd control measures. They discussed their options for three hours Thursday night, but a final vote likely will come at a special meeting next week.

The annual conch shell, drag queen and pirate wench countdown “drops” have all been canceled, but hotel bookings are nearing capacity. 

How many people will stand in a shoulder-to-shoulder New Year’s Eve crowd if there’s nothing to watch at midnight? Could the drop cancellations encourage the crowds to spread out instead of congregating in three specific locations?

Would a 10 p.m. or 1 a.m. curfew effectively protect a crowd that size with enforcement already a challenge? And what happens at 9 p.m. when people learn that alcohol sales will end at 10 p.m.? 

 A 10 p.m. curfew effectively translates to a 9 p.m. closure for restaurants. Would that curfew apply only to alcohol sales, or will people also be dispersed from the streets and sidewalks? How will hotels and guesthouses be impacted by guests forced onto the properties at 10 p.m.?

Above all, how does a 2×4-mile island keep its residents — and 50,000 additional people — as safe as possible amid a spike of devastating COVID infections locally and nationwide? 

All these and more questions were asked and argued during the Dec. 3 city commission discussion about New Year’s Eve crowd control.

The commission was as divided as the community over what actions can or should be taken.

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Commissioner Sam Kaufman applauded the Health & Business Advisory Committee and called for the commision to support its recommendations: a 1 a.m. curfew; increased outdoor dining; outdoor event cancellations; increased mask signage and advice to elderly and vulnerable residents to remain home that night.

 Commissioners Billy Wardlow and Clayton Lopez emphasized that the crowds are already booked and coming. “Our hotels are already booked. We’re chasing the goose at this point,” Lopez said.

“We’re gonna send them off Duval Street at 10 p.m. and into the hotels? They’ve gotta go somewhere. I say we cross our fingers and hope for the best,” Wardlow said.

Mayor Teri Johnston, Commissioners Greg Davila and Jimmy Weekley spoke passionately in favor of a 10 p.m. curfew and any other measures to reduce the crowd size, while Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover wanted the commission to more specifically define the curfew, where it would apply and how it would be implemented.

“I will do everything possible as conservatively as I can to protect this community,” Weekley said. “This is one time that we’re asking the bars and restaurant to make a sacrifice and close at 10 p.m. for one night of the year. There is help available for the workers. There are programs to help.”

Business owners and workers had a much different perspective and pointed out that the industry and its workers have been sacrificing since March 17.

“If there’s no attraction to watch on Duval Street, no conch shell or Sushi or pirate wench dropping, then people will spread out. They won’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder in one area without something to watch,” event promoter Louie C. Rock told the commissioners.

“This is not a balanced approach. This is just wrong,” restaurant owner Bill Lay said. “A 10 p.m. curfew puts staff in the precarious position of kicking people out [before midnight on New Year’s Eve.] This is a grave mistake.”

Lynne Hernandez of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, told the commission, “Key West would be the only city considering a 10 p.m. curfew.” She said the FRLA would happily donate 100,000 masks for the New Year’s Eve crowds and encouraged lawmakers to adopt the committee’s recommendations with a 1 a.m. curfew.

The New Year’s Eve discussion was listed as a discussion item Thursday evening, so no vote was taken. A special meeting will likely be called next week for a vote.

 

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