The political and personal split that has marked Key West’s ongoing cruise ship debate for nearly two years became a physical divide on Thursday morning, when the two sides positioned themselves on separate waterfront piers to either welcome returning cruise ship passengers or spurn the ship that exceeds the new size limits that voters approved in November 2020.

The Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships (SCS), which has spearheaded the significant reduction to Key West’s cruise ship industry, hosted a Rally at Mallory Thursday morning to protest the ship, not its arriving passengers, said Arlo Haskell, SCS treasurer.

“It’s not about the passengers; it’s about these big ships and the environmental damage that’s bad for Key West’s tourism,” Haskell said.

Adding that he counted approximately 300 SCS protesters at the rally just off the bow of the Norwegian Dawn ship.The rally also included a flotilla of private boats in Key West Harbor organized by Capt. Will Benson of SCS.

Meanwhile, at the adjacent Pier B marina, the privately owned cruise ship dock, scores of business owners, chamber of commerce members and tourism workers held signs welcoming the arriving ship and its passengers back to Key West after the ships’ nearly two-year absence due to COVID sailing restrictions.

Tom McMurrain of Pier B and Ocean Properties was at Pier B Thursday morning and spoke with the Keys Weekly about finding “reasonable solutions” to the current debate.

“With reasonable people coming together, I think we can come up with reasonable solutions,” McMurrain said. “We definitely believe in Key West’s tourism economy and people should be able to come here by ship, plane, car or however they’d like, and feel welcome.”

Steven Nekhaila, owner of the local Wendy’s restaurants, was holding a welcome sign Thursday morning at Pier B, and said, “It’s because of these passengers and all tourists that we’re able to live in such a beautiful place. I’m here representing the hospitality industry and its workers, because quite frankly, the majority of them are afraid to speak their minds out of fear of being targeted, or having their business targeted, by the online, social media mod.”

In the end, Thursday’s protest against the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship was a peaceful demonstration. The protesters carried signs and waved Safer Cleaner Ships flags while chanting, “Stop the Silt,” “Respect Our Vote” and “No Big Ships.”

And in case you’re just joining the Great Key West Cruise Ship Debate, here’s a little background on the issue:

In November 2020, 62% of Key West voters approved local referendums to drastically reduce the number of ships — and the number of people aboard — that can dock in Key West. When implemented, the new restrictions would prohibit 95% of Key West’s cruise ship port calls.

Six months later, a new state law voided those and any voter initiatives that could restrict maritime commerce in Florida.

But until the city of Key West turns those referendums, spearheaded by the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, into city ordinances, which were not voided by the new state law, the restrictions do not apply at the privately owned Pier B marina. City officials are enforcing the new limits at the two piers the city controls, Mallory Pier and the Outer Mole Pier, which Key West leases from the Navy.

City Attorney Shawn Smith is working with a Fort Lauderdale attorney to draft the ordinances that can be defended in court against the anticipated legal challenges.

Smith has repeatedly warned city commissioners that he anticipates costly lawsuits from private business in response to the city government’s attempt to restrict their operations and reduce their income, especially at Pier B, which was built specifically for cruise ships. In addition, Smith has said, the city has been collecting 25% of Pier B’s cruise ship revenues for nearly 30 years and still has a contract in place with Pier B that allows seven ships per week to dock at Pier B.

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.