OPINION: WHAT’S AT STAKE IN THE CRUISE SHIP REFERENDA

Last May, 2,500 Key West voters petitioned the City of Key West to force a long-overdue referendum on cruise ships.

Those opposed to this grassroots effort immediately sued in federal court to take away the right to vote. When that failed, they sued in state court to stop the votes from being counted. 

The election is now underway, with more than 30% of voters having cast their ballots in vote-by-mail and early voting. A “yes, yes, yes” vote on all three referenda would limit the size of cruise ships that call on Key West and the number of people that disembark each day.

In recent weeks, opponents of this common-sense legislation have run a disinformation campaign without precedent in Key West politics. They’ve sent noxious lies about tax increases and slashed police budgets to every household in the city. They’ve harassed and intimidated petition signers, published a map of their homes in the newspaper, and even followed petition signers to their homes.

The ugliest of these tactics are organized by a gang of paid political operatives from Dade City that the Miami Herald reports is fueled by untraceable “dark money.” Their local allies have tried to distance themselves from the most shameful efforts, but in truth the Key West “vote no” crew has shared information, co-hosted events, and coordinated their campaign with the Dade City outsiders.

The opposition has concluded they don’t have the votes to win in a fair election. So they are trying to suppress the vote through intimidation and confusion.

Here’s what’s at stake:

If the 3 referenda fail to pass, Key West loses all leverage over the cruise ship industry and becomes a guinea pig for experimental COVID cruises.

Carnival and Royal Caribbean are clamoring to bring their enormous ships back into service as soon as possible. Florida politicians have cleared the way for cruise operations to resume from Miami the minute the no-sail order is lifted. Washington lobbyists have steamrolled the CDC, making it increasingly difficult for the agency to regulate cruise ships and protect public health.

The first port-of-call for the back-from-the-dead cruise industry will be Key West. Our island has been the key to the Caribbean for almost 200 years, and it is the key to the cruise industry’s hopes for a reset of Caribbean cruising this winter. And that means Key West will become the guinea pig for the industry’s untested theories about “safe at sea” operations during a global pandemic that has infected 40 million people and killed more than 1 million. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 raged on cruise ships at an infection rate 15 times deadlier than the epicenter of Wuhan, China. If the referenda fail, up to 10,000 people per day will be disgorged from cruise ships.

If these referenda fail, we lose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve Key West.
For a long time, Key West struggled to attract visitors and investment. Out of desperation and corruption, our leaders made disastrous decisions. We gave away public waterfront. We destroyed sensitive wetlands. We let our commercial fishing industry get beaten within an inch of its life. We watched lower Duval Street get overrun by obscene t-shirt shops, soulless corporate storefronts, and aggressive sidewalk barkers.

At the root of these problems is the fact that we gave the green light to the cruise industry. We let the most notoriously corrupt and polluting corporations in the world seize power over the day-to-day operation of our historic port. We stood idly by as some of the world’s largest cruise ships squeezed into Key West’s narrow shipping channel three times a day, grinding the living sea floor into a blasted moonscape devoid of life.
If these referenda fail, say goodbye to the clear water and clean air we’ve enjoyed during the past several months.


Soft corals, sea fans, and sponges have begun to recolonize the shipping channel. But they have a tentative hold. This new life will be obliterated within days of resumed large ship operations. Within weeks, large ships will again disrupt the sea floor with every transit through the channel, and plumes of filthy silt will run from the harbor to the reef. Nearshore water quality will diminish almost overnight, and it will get worse as the days go by.
The incredible recovery of our waters that we’ve all witnessed will come to seem like a dream. Once again, Old Town residents will find a fresh layer of soot and grime on their front porch every night. Once again, north winds will carry the acrid stench of large ship exhaust across the island.

The out-of-town cruise industry and their tiny band of local backers will call this a good thing. But it won’t be good for you.

Vote yes to protect Key West.

Arlo Haskell 
Treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships

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