Bill Lay, owner of La Trattoria, 524 Duval St., Key West, has asked city officials to allow bar seating inside restaurants. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Key West businesses are hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic, capacity restrictions and reduced tourism, but most of them aren’t asking for government assistance.

They want city hall to let them help themselves — by relaxing regulations to allow bar seating inside restaurants, which is permitted in the rest of the Florida Keys. They also want the Keys’ tourism council to launch an advertising campaign targeting visitors who can reach Key West within a day’s drive, typically from North Carolina and states south. And they want local residents to welcome returning tourists with appreciation and hospitality, rather than dread at the possibility of COVID spread.

Residents have to welcome visitors with hospitality and appreciation, not with dread, as some groups seem to view them right now, said Kim Works of Pirate Radio.

Shawn McConnell, owner of Irish Kevin’s bar and grill, called for an aggressive marketing campaign by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

“We have to aggressively market the island because we’re on life support,” he said. “Rents on Duval were already out of control. Now they’re not survivable. And keep in mind, before we propose anything that’s going to cost the city money, it’s likely about to lose millions of dollars as well if the cruise ship referendums pass.”

Attorney Bart Smith, who also owns Sunset Marina and Key West Golf Course, told the 25 or so roundtable participants his occupancy has dropped to 25 to 30% on weekdays and 60% on weekends.

“Our hotel occupancy rates are abysmal. We canceled all the events that bring people down here. We should be on overdrive, advertising the Keys, encouraging people to come,” Smith said.

Restaurant owner Bill Lay echoed the importance and effectiveness of the TDC’s marketing and advertising efforts.

“The TDC is starting a marketing campaign Oct 1,” he said. “It’s their job to advertise all of the Florida Keys and it’s worked for many years.”

Lay had another request.

“It would be extremely helpful if the city of Key West would be in lockstep with the rest of the Florida Keys, where bar seating is allowed in restaurants,” said Lay, who owns La Trattoria and Virgilio’s lounge on Duval Street, an co-owns La Trattoria Oceanside and Benihana on South Roosevelt Boulevard with attorney Darren Horan.

He had asked the Key West city commissioners on Aug. 19 to allow island restaurants to utilize their bar seating with proper social distancing protocols.

“The mayor could have lifted that ban with the swipe of a pen to change that directive, and she did not,” Lay said. “No one on that commission is in the restaurant business and a lot of people are suffering.”

City seeks input on economic recovery

The discussion occurred during an Aug. 27 roundtable discussion hosted by the Key West Chamber of Commerce. Local business consultant Elisa Levy facilitated the chamber’s roundtable on Aug. 27. Another is scheduled for Aug. 28. 

Levy is hosting dozens of similar talks with various business and community interests: lodging, attractions, restaurants, the arts, Key West Mom and Pop businesses and so on. 

“There are numerous challenges and they are grave,” Levy said, adding that she will present all ideas and concerns from each roundtable to the city commission on Oct. 1. 

Additional suggestions for the city’s economic recovery:

Free parking downtown for six months to a year;

Commercial rent reduction, perhaps with the city’s encouragement or incentive

Incentives for landlords renting to local workers, and forgoing more profitable short-term vacation rentals;

Permission to hold smaller-scale, outdoor fairs and events to bring visitors to the island;

Greet visitors with free, decorative face masks at the airport and ferry terminal.

Marketing efforts that highlight Key West’s protective safety protocols.


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