Re­open­ing Keys busi­nesses pre­pare for tourists’ re­turn

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID GOODHUE AND GWEN FILOSA dgood­hue@flkeysnews.com gfilosa@flkeysnews.com

In two weeks, the two Florida Keys check­points that keep out tourists are ex­pected to come down.

Will the open road lead to a rush of vis­i­tors antsy to leave their homes af­ter months in quar­an­tine? Will any crowd be mostly daytrip­pers? Or long-term, overnight guests? Do tourists even have the cash they had be­fore the COVID-19 pan­demic for a stay in an ex­pen­sive par­adise?

Those an­swers won’t come un­til June 1.

But Keys hos­pi­tal­ity lead­ers don’t en­vi­sion hordes of tourists ar­riv­ing then, with many in Florida out of work or just not ready for a trip quite yet.

“We’re not ex­pect­ing huge crowds of peo­ple,” said Jodi Wein­hofer, pres­i­dent of the Lodging As­so­ci­a­tion of the Florida Keys and Key West. “And it will be lim­ited to 50 per­cent. Any­where you look where they’ve re­opened, they’re not in­un­dated with peo­ple.”

Safety and clean­li­ness are now the new buzz­words in travel, Wein­hofer said. Ho­tels and inns once cleaned while guests were out of their rooms. Now, ho­tels will be clean­ing all the time, no mat­ter who’s watch­ing.

“Peo­ple are go­ing to have to feel safe and then they will want to travel,” Wein­hofer said. “Hy­giene is go­ing to be the new ser­vice and lux­ury. We’re now go­ing to clean in front of peo­ple and com­mu­ni­cate just how san­i­tized we’re mak­ing prop­er­ties.”

Oth­ers see June 1 as the Keys’ big mo­ment to at least start mak­ing some money again.

Key West will be ready, said City Man­ager Greg Veliz, who wasn’t sur­prised by Mon­roe County’s Sun­day night an­nounce­ment that ho­tels and other lodg­ings have the go-ahead to re­open to tourists at 50 per­cent ca­pac­ity in two weeks.

“I knew those road­blocks weren’t long for this world,” Veliz said.

Even ripped-up streets will be ready to roll. The repaving and re­con­struc­tion of an empty and tourist-less Du­val Street is set for com­ple­tion by the end of this week, said city spokes­woman Alyson Crean. All that’s needed is new strip­ing.

“The as­phalt has to cure for a cou­ple weeks be­fore the strip­ing can be ap­plied,” Crean said.

Key West will do as well as can be ex­pected come June 1, business lead­ers say.

“There is pent-up de­mand and I think we will have a mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful start, but we won’t be over­run,” said Scott Atwell, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and CEO of the Key West Cham­ber of Com­merce. “What­ever suc­cess we have at the be­gin­ning of June, there is still much con­cern about the tourism in­dus­try both short and long term.”

Re­tail stores and restau­rants, op­er­at­ing with un­der-ca­pac­ity rules, re­opened this month for lo­cals only.

The two road­blocks in the Up­per Keys were a ma­jor part of Mon­roe County’s strat­egy to stop the spread of the novel coro­n­avirus into the Keys, and they ap­peared to have worked. While Keys cases of COVID-19 con­tinue to rise, al­most all who proved ill over the past two weeks live or work in the same nurs­ing home in Plan­ta­tion Key.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est num­bers from the Florida Depart­ment of Health, about 100 peo­ple in the county have tested pos­i­tive, three have died since March and no one is cur­rently hos­pi­tal­ized.

That rep­re­sents a frac­tion of the pos­i­tive cases and deaths seen in neigh­bor­ing coun­ties like Mi­amiDade and Broward.

Mon­roe’s two ma­jor hos­pi­tals have taken down their coro­n­avirus in­take tents, and Bob Eadie, ad­min­is­tra­tor for the Depart­ment of Health in Mon­roe County, said the virus ap­pears to be un­der con­trol in the Keys.

“We don’t see very much ac­tive in­fec­tions within Mon­roe County,” Eadie said Mon­day.

County lead­ers said when the check­points come down, lodging es­tab­lish­ments, in­clud­ing ho­tels, va­ca­tion rentals and camp­grounds, can open up at 50 per­cent of their ca­pac­ity.

The re­open­ing an­nounce­ment came on the eve of when Gov. Ron DeSan­tis’ or­der al­low­ing restau­rants and gyms at 50 per­cent ca­pac­ity went into ef­fect.

While there haven’t been tourists in the Keys since March, business lead­ers say they have been busier than ever pre­par­ing for their re­turn.

The Up­per Keys business com­mu­nity is look­ing for­ward to wel­com­ing them back and is “mov­ing me­thod­i­cally to­ward the June 1 open­ing,” said El­iz­a­beth Moscyn­ski, pres­i­dent of the Key Largo Cham­ber of Com­merce.

She said a big part of that is build­ing con­fi­dence among vis­i­tors that Mon­roe is a safe des­ti­na­tion and own­ers have taken the proper steps to keep their cus­tomers healthy.

“We must pro­tect the health and safety of our com­mu­nity, the em­ploy­ees as well as our vis­i­tors,” Moscyn­ski said. “You get there by en­sur­ing the pro­to­cols for hy­giene, clean­li­ness, so­cial dis­tanc­ing and per­sonal hy­giene pro­tec­tion are the No. 1 pri­or­ity.”

Judy Hull, direc­tor of the Is­lam­orada Cham­ber of Com­merce agreed, not­ing health ex­perts cau­tion that while Keys cases have not spiked like other places in the rest of the state, the virus is not over.

“We are open­ing, but the virus is not gone,” Hull said. “We have to make sure we have the right pro­tec­tive mea­sures in place so we can live safely with it among us.”

It’s an im­por­tant con­cern. Kris­ten Liven­good, Mon­roe County’s spokes­woman, said the du­ra­tion of the re­open­ing is sub­ject to change and re­ver­sal based on the re­sults of a planned in­crease in test­ing and con­tact trac­ing, as well as ef­forts of neigh­bor­ing coun­ties to con­trol the trans­mis­sion of the virus in their re­spec­tive ar­eas.

“Should the Florida Keys ex­pe­ri­ence an in­crease in cases and un­der the ad­vise­ment of the Florida Depart­ment of Health, re­stric­tions may be height­ened and/or ameni­ties may again be closed,” Liven­good said in a state­ment. With ho­tels and other lodging es­tab­lish­ments only able to open at 50 per­cent ca­pac­ity, com­mu­nity lead­ers don’t ex­pect a flood of tourists look­ing to stay overnight.

Sim­i­lar to hur­ri­cane af­ter­maths, the Keys likely lost a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of its work­force to serve tourists when ho­tels, va­ca­tion rentals and bars and restau­rants fully re­open, although ex­perts say pre­dict­ing the pre­cise num­ber of peo­ple who left is pre­ma­ture.

The Univer­sity of Florida’s Bureau of Eco­nomic and Business Re­search con­ducted a study in Septem­ber 2018 that con­cluded nearly 4 per­cent of the Keys pop­u­la­tion left and never re­turned af­ter the Cat­e­gory 4 Hur­ri­cane Irma rav­aged the ar­chi­pel­ago a year ear­lier.

The pop­u­la­tion went from about 77,000 peo­ple to just un­der 74,000, ac­cord­ing to the study.

Ste­fan Rayer, pop­u­la­tion pro­gram direc­tor for the UF study group, said this week that the im­pact of the pan­demic on the Keys’ work­force is a long way off from be­ing de­ter­mined.

“We just started work­ing on our state and lo­cal pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates for April 1, 2020,” Rayer said in an email. “Most of the pop­u­la­tion change over the past year hap­pened be­fore COVID-19; con­se­quently, the pan­demic should have a very lim­ited im­pact on those es­ti­mates.”

He doesn’t an­tic­i­pate the ef­fects of the pan­demic on the Keys pop­u­la­tion will be no­tice­able for about an­other year.

“Our next se­ries of pop­u­la­tion pro­jec­tions for coun­ties won’t come out be­fore spring 2021,” Rayer said. “By then, we should have a bet­ter pic­ture of the im­pacts on growth.”

PHO­TOS BY GWEN FILOSA FLKeysNews.com

Key West restau­ra­teurs and Mon­roe County of­fi­cials hope tourists will trek to a re­opened Florida Keys, but many es­tab­lish­ments, in­clud­ing ho­tels and stores. will be lim­ited to 50 per­cent ca­pac­ity.

Mon­roe County has re­opened Higgs Beach in Key West, but vis­i­tors must take pre­cau­tions, such as prac­tic­ing proper so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

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