It seems so small and so selfish to say in the midst of a much needed economic boom in the Middle Keys, but here it is. Business owners and employees are exhausted. Thank goodness so many local entrepreneurs weathered the economic storm caused by the pandemic. On the other hand, we’re really at a breaking point in terms of our ability to serve.

I’ve been thinking about this column for a long time, talking to my friends, family and business partners in the community. It’s an important thing that needs to be said, although many don’t want their name attached to this column for good reason — it looks like we’re complaining about the so-called “first world problems,” i.e., we’re doing TOO well at a time when many are struggling. 

The reality is much more nuanced, of course.  

While the pandemic didn’t wipe out the Middle Keys’ physical infrastructure like Hurricane Irma, it did do damage. There were some scary months in there when businesses didn’t know if the PPP check was coming, or if tourists were ever coming back. During April and May 2020, employees’ entire worlds changed overnight — furloughed, laid off, or what’s the difference? Our beaches and roads were beautifully empty — but so were our wallets. 

One local therapist explained the pandemic’s traumatic effect this way: “Your assumptive world is turned upside down and you are very busy just surviving it. But it’s always darkest before  dawn and I think right now that’s where we are.” The same therapist said that in some ways now is better than the beginning of the pandemic because we understand more about the coronavirus, how to treat it and how to save lives. But questions like “When will it be safe to gather again?” persist. 

So, we’ve made it a year. The tourists came back. The businesses survived, mostly. Vaccines are being distributed. But cases that were trending downward are now trending up again. There is no celebrating in the streets. We just get out of bed and do it again — pour a beer, make a hotel bed, fix an engine, ring up a purchase and show visitors where to find the bread aisle at the supermarket. 

A too-thin workforce has always been an issue in the Florida Keys. Unemployment is almost non-existent here and always has been for one simple reason: If you don’t work, you can’t afford to live here. Also, if you don’t work two or three jobs, you can’t afford to live here. Add in a pandemic and now business owners are trying to recoup their losses while struggling to keep the employees they do have from burning out. 

This is what is going on behind the scenes:

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Some restaurants are closing on certain days of the week, with the purpose of giving staff a needed break. Think about that: business owners are leaving money on the table in order to preserve their own well-being and that of their employees. Another local employer is offering a housing credit of $250 per month to employees who agree to work a certain number of shifts per week. Another employer is authorizing an extra tip-out to its cashiers. Businesses are running out of supplies whether that’s construction lumber or tubs of ice cream. Businesses and employees are just overwhelmed.

We’re stretched really, really thin right now but staying silent about it. Again, we don’t want to ruin a tourist’s vacation or seem like we’re kvetching about our good fortune. 

So, locals, give yourself a break. Do your best to continue to make the Keys a wonderful place to visit, but also take really good care of yourself and your loved ones. Be good to one another. 

Visitors, please look twice: we’re doing the best we can on shaky legs to make your visit lovely. Please be kind.  

 

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