Key West is often described as the two by four island — meaning two miles wide by four miles long. Even its most famous corridor — Duval Street — is no more than 50 feet wide from building to building.
The 24,000 year-round residents enjoy the intimacy — even as millions of visitors come each year.
But the very dense and consolidated island has made navigating the pandemic a challenge, to say the least.
However, there’s a growing sense among city leaders and residents that conditions are turning a corner.
“I have a greater sense of optimism,” Mayor Teri Johnston, who is in her second term, said.
Johnston said she’s been particularly happy with the vaccination rate of residents who are 50 and over. But she’s still concerned about younger service workers who often deal with tourists that may not be vaccinated or flout mask requirements. The city has been encouraging those under 50 to get the vaccine and has provided access to thousands of free rapid COVID-19 tests.
“Economically they need to work, but we want them to work healthy,” Johnston said. “We’re so close to beating this thing. The impression is that it’s over. It’s better, but we’ve got a ways to go.”
Key West recently revised its mask mandate to line up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guideline that loosened outdoor mask guidance. Johnston said the city would continue to follow the most updated CDC guidelines.
Johnston has taken a fair amount of heat for instituting tight rules for Key West through the pandemic.
“We had a balance between protective measures and economic viability,” she said. “You could not have one without the other. It’s not an issue of taking away rights, it’s an issue of keeping everyone healthy.”
Johnston said her optimism now is also reflected in the city’s economic rebound. Through February, she said, Key West was at 108% of its sales tax revenue compared to last February — a record.
Kevin Theriault, the executive director of the Key West Business Guild and Gay Key West Visitor Center, also said the economic situation has been improving for the tourist industry. He said visitors have returned and the proof is in a 90% and up occupancy rate for hotels and guesthouses.
Key West Pride Returns
Key West city commissioners approved the return of Key West Pride this year. While there’s a full schedule of events from June 2-6, it was decided that the Pride parade, which normally closes festivities, would not take place out of an abundance of safety.
Johnston said one of the reasons she feels confident about events returning to Key West overall is because of the involvement of the city’s event department. Representatives meet with every event organizer to plan out safe logistics in advance.
At the recent Conch Republic Independence Celebration, for example, booths on Duval Street were 20 feet apart and most people were masked up if they couldn’t maintain social distancing.
“Our measures have to be different since we’re shoulder to shoulder,” Johnston, who has filed to run for reelection in 2022, said.
Theriault said although some in the gay community might be disappointed that the parade won’t take place, most understand.
“We believe it is the right decision to continue to keep our community and visitors safe,” Theriault said. “Regardless of this decision, we have found that people are simply excited to be able to be celebrating Pride again.”
“Everyone is very excited about Pride,” added Johnston, who is Key West’s first lesbian mayor and the second woman to hold the post. “We are one of the most diverse and proud communities in the U.S. This brings us back to some level of normalcy.”
For more information on Pride events, go to gaykeywestfl.com/pride.