In the Florida Keys, where fewer than 100 cases of coronavirus have been reported, the economic catastrophe is beginning to overshadow the public health crisis. The line between those who want to continue limiting access to protect the island chain and those who want to reopen the Keys for commerce and tourism is growing more distinct and divisive by the day.
Key West business owner Ed Swift, whose company, Historic Tours of America, employs about 350 people, orchestrated two protests on May 12 at one of the island’s busiest intersections.
“We’re committing economic suicide by not getting our city back open,” Swift told The Weekly in a Tuesday interview. “Duval Street is going to be boarded up. There will be foreclosures. People won’t be able to pay their rent, mortgages, taxes or insurance. We’re going to see tremendous pain and anger. Families are going to be hurt.”
Swift said he organized the protests because when he woke up the morning of May 9, he thought, “This is bull—. This cannot go on. I could no longer just stand by and watch us destroy our economy to the point of no return.”
Both demonstrations — at 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. — drew as many as 100 participants, many of them hefting signs that read, “Open the hotels,” “End the roadblock,” “Let people work,” and “Open U.S. 1.”
Others joined the protest to display their own sentiments, including protester Sally Galbraith, who wore a mask and gloves that had the words “Too Soon” written on them in black marker.
Swift emphasized the importance of protecting the community’s most vulnerable residents from the virus while allowing those who are willing and able to return to work.
“We are a community of small businesses, most hanging by a thread. We cannot continue to allow our fear of the virus to destroy tourism, the single enterprise that provides a livelihood for the majority of those living and working on our island. The people who live here need to make a living to support their families,” Swift said in a prepared statement for the media. “It is time for balance — to balance our fears of possibly catching and dying from the virus with the reality of an economic disaster from which we will not recover for many years.”
Swift told The Weekly he was surprised by the turnout at both demonstrations, and said most of the participants did not even work for HTA, but rather for hotels, bars and other attractions.
He denied the rumors circulating on social media that said Swift had offered HTA employees $50 apiece to participate in the protest.
“I offered nothing to anybody,” he said, adding that he was not coordinating similar events in the other six cities where Historic Tours of America operates — Savannah, St. Augustine, San Diego, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Nashville. “Key West is the place that’s lagging behind. We’re already back up and running in Savannah and St. Augustine. Remember, hotels weren’t closed in the rest of the state of Florida.”
Jeff Hoerl, a trolley driver for HTA, was holding a sign next to Swift on Tuesday.
“I need to work. I have two daughters, 11 and 14. Their dad needs to work,” Hoerl said, pointing to Swift. “This man could be sitting anywhere and sipping a margarita, but he’s not. He’s out here for the people. He really cares about this community.”
Others were less supportive of Swift’s position. One protest passerby observed, “You guys want the checkpoint taken down, but yet you’re still wearing masks to protect yourselves? It’s too soon.”
Another woman, Swift said, circled in her car past the protest three times, each time raising her middle finger and shouting expletives at the protesters.
When asked whether any police or city officials had questioned the protest, which drew significantly more than 10 people, Swift said, “The city just told me that people had to wear masks if they were going to be within 6 feet of each other. Most folks were wearing masks anyway,” although photos of the event show only a minority of people wearing masks while standing shoulder to shoulder.