By Scott Atwell
CEO, Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce
When the U.S. Navy pulled out of Key West in 1971 my father lost his civil service job at the base. I was ten years old and remember him coming home and telling my brother and I that he was offered another position in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. We howled. Fortunately, he landed a job repairing appliances for Sears, but many others were not as lucky, and by the end of the decade Key West lost almost 17 percent of its population.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on today’s Key West economy feels like 1971 all over again. Almost half of all jobs in Monroe County are directly attributed to tourism (while the others are closely related), and a Moody’s analyst predicts the leisure and hospitality sectors will be the hardest hit by the economic fallout of COVID-19.
Key West was flush with a bountiful winter season when the phone calls started rolling into the Chamber of Commerce at a rate of almost one per minute during a peak period last week. If one was running from a pandemic, the end of the road seemed as good a place as any to hide, and callers wanted to know if we were still in business. But in rapid succession everything related to travel was shut down, and within days thousands of local jobs were impacted. A local innkeeper, still repaying loans from Hurricane Irma, wrote to say her business was in shambles.
But Key West is known for her resilience and local business leaders have risen to the occasion. Many are continuing to pay their employees through advance vacation leave or putting them to work sprucing up the premises. From the corner bar to the Dairy Queen, workers have been seen out front with paint brushes in hand. When Mark Rossi’s 70 employees are done, his Durty Harry’s may have to be renamed.
Organizers of Key West Cares have spun off a One Clean Island initiative to keep the community informed and safe, and we are blessed to have the folksy Bob Eadie dispensing our health directives. Eadie would be the most sober person in a room full of monks, never sensationalizing and often tempering hysteria with sage advice and counsel.
When restaurants were closed to sit-down service the Chamber quickly responded and had a list of take-out and delivery options on the street before dinner time, and Chamber President Greg Sullivan encouraged everyone to “be kind,” an acknowledgement that the next wave of this crisis will most certainly be felt in our mental health community.
Key West’s economy has taken hits before. Modern maritime navigation put wreck salvagers out of business and our cigar empire went up in smoke after a fire in 1886. When the Navy pulled out in 1971 Duval Street merchants were decimated. Parts of the stretch resembled a ghost town, but the U.S. Bicentennial created incentive to spruce up the public spaces with sidewalk planters and old-fashioned streetlights, setting the stage for the next economic engine: tourism. Ironically, a reimagining of Duval Street is among the highest priorities of City Manager Greg Veliz.
With tourists still in town as the COVID-19 news spread like wildfire, the Chamber conducted a man-on-the street survey and one question asked visitors about their likelihood of returning to Key West. More than half scored it an 8, 9 or ten.
That’s good news, because building back our economy is not an option—it is an imperative. When business is healthy the community is healthy, and the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce will be out front advocating for a full recovery. After all, there’s a ten-year old kid out there wondering if he’ll have to leave his island home. I know how that feels.