Editor’s note: A coronavirus pandemic that saw some of the first cases in the Keys in March changed life in a way no one could have imagined. A checkpoint kept visitors away from the island chain for a time, affecting many jobs, from servers to hoteliers. Policies were changed to address coronavirus spread in the community. Ultimately, the Keys reopened to visitors as workers in the tourist industry returned to work. Each week, the Weekly will highlight a local who spent some time to share their 2020 year. This week, Charlotte Twine met up with Jesse Hayes, 37, who is a commercial fisherman for lobster and stone crab based out of Islamorada.

Describe the year 2020 in one word. (Long laugh.) Aw, Jesus. One word? Give me a second please. I’ll come back to it.

Okay. But why is 2020 so difficult to describe? It’s been so f—— chaotic. Like for business. Between the trade wars and the coronavirus, obviously. Those are two big factors. My business has faced a lot of attrition this year. It seems to be coming from all angles, really. The industry itself doesn’t have too many friends these days. Primarily, the lobster industry is supported by Chinese markets. When the trade wars started and they started slapping more and more tariffs on American seafood imports, they basically handicapped our industry. I mean, we opened up at four dollars a pound for lobster this season; that’s just awful. At the end of the day, with all this monkey business with our fisheries, you pay more for a cheeseburger than a goddamned lobster, which seems backwards from any angle.

What was your worst moment of 2020? There have been a lot of those. (Laughter) The absolute worst? (Sigh.) I was scheduled to go to Alaska, where I’m from. This was scheduled a year in advance. It was October 10. The day before I was leaving, I was really anxious. I didn’t wanna think about that: Do I just go to my best good buddy’s wedding? Do I try to play it safe and wear a mask, do the distance thing, regardless of how difficult that may be? The day before I was leaving, my mom tested positive, and all these tests from my circle were testing positive. So I’m going up there, and I’m not going to be able to see anybody? Why? To show my buddy I love him? That’s not very realistic. So I canceled the day before. That was certainly stressful.

Do you know anyone who got sick from COVID-19? Oh, yeah, plenty. Half my family in Anchorage. One of my brothers still has some lingering after-effects. He has a hard time doing anything for more than an hour before he has to lay down. He’s in his thirties.

Do you know anyone who died from COVID-19? Yes. In Anchorage. A guy in his 60s I used to drink with occasionally. A guy in his 50s I used to go bird hunting with. I have an aunt in her 60s who’s in the hospital right now, and things are improving but not looking good.

Did you experience financial stress in 2020 due to the pandemic? Of course. Yeah. The seafood market over all just s— the bed when COVID broke out. The stone crab market went from really strong overnight to shutting down. I’m fortunate that the fish house took the best care of its fishermen that it could.

What got you through the stress? That sense that everything was gonna work out okay. I’ve seen some pretty difficult times in my life, as f—– up as 2020 is. Has 2020 been a massive setback? Absolutely. Has it aged me? Sure, why not? Is it the worst of times? Absolutely not. I still have a house, the dog’s healthy, my boat’s running good. Everything ultimately just works out. And the community. Everybody cares. Nobody wants to see anyone twisting in the wind. Everybody here is pretty much looking out for each other.

Do you practice social distancing personally? Oh, yes. 

Do you practice social distancing at work? Oh, I work alone, so yeah. It’s a one-man operation.

Has the social distancing caused stress? Sure. Um, well, I mean, unless you’re paired off with a significant other. I wasn’t big on going to bars to begin with. There’s that.

Do you think the social distancing works? Yes.

Did you notice any physical symptoms from stress? No. My social skills have slipped a bit. I’m not interacting as I used to. That’s a factor. Nothing real terrible.

What was your best moment of 2020? Yeah, I had plenty of good moments. You know, basically, any day where I can sit with my dog and smoke my pipe when the sun comes up and then go to work and work hard and go home with some product to show for it, those are the best days. Doesn’t matter what year it is.

Did you gain the “Quarantine 15”? I don’t even know what that is. 

A lot of people gained weight during the self-isolation. Have you? With my occupation, it’s necessary to work every day. If food production stops, people will starve. So my work never stopped, even when the markets went to s—. It’s intensely physically demanding. I started cooking at home more, so I’m actually eating better.

Let’s circle back to that one word for 2020. “Challenging.”
Any further thoughts on 2020? Yes. Eat fish.


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