Come October my up-North friends with an eye on the coming winter calendar ramp up the “how y’all doing there in Key West” calls and texts. The subtext, of course, is “are you up for house guests on (pick a date).”

Living in a place others dream of visiting is a joy. I like sharing the island. It’s more than crossed my mind that riding out COVID-19 in Key West is not exactly tough duty. Around Valentine’s Day, we’re going to look positively enticing to our cold mainland friends.

We usually are. Up for house guests that is. If the calendar were open, we’d pencil them in, confident that as sure as there is a daily Mallory Square sunset, Key West in high season would be theirs to enjoy.

This year there’s another subtext: How is COVID-19 affecting life and vacationing in Key West? Do you think I should take the chance? What about February? How do you think things will be then?

We’re going to need a new set of protocols and how-tos for house guests and visitors in this COVID-19 world. Short of telling them “no,” which is, certainly, an option, we need to figure out how we’re going to decide who gets a date on the calendar or how we explain what a February vacation might look like. I’ve cobbled together a handful; I’m up for suggestions.

Keep it close. In years past, we’d clean the spare bedroom for what I call “friendly acquaintances.” People we enjoy spending time with, but who wouldn’t be on our emergency call list. Probably not even the Christmas card list. Heck, we might not even have their home address. That’s not going to happen with COVID-19 around. Family. Close friends. That’s it.

Know what they’re doing at home. If they’re sans masks at Target (or if most everyone else is), if they’re posting pictures of their busy lives out-and-about with strangers, we’re not cleaning the spare bedroom. If they’ve been following protocols, then maybe. If they’ve been mostly isolated at home, almost certainly.

Driving or flying. Honestly, unless it’s a non-stop drive, getting to and from Key West is going to raise the risk of exposure. Whether it’s the American departure gate last Sunday with its mash-up of four flights and packed in crowds or two nights and 10 bio-breaks on a long drive, I don’t see much difference. Either you’re going to risk it or not. I’d do a 90-minute Delta non-stop with its open middle seat. But as airlines add seasonal flights, Key West’s airport looks less safe than even a few weeks ago. It’s going to get really crowded as season approaches and airlines push to increase flights and 100% filled seats. And, no one except our Miami neighbors have a shot at a non-stop drive.

Isolate. Are house guests willing to stay at home most of the time they’re here? Are they willing to do take out and not a bar crawl? Will they sub a couple days at Fort Zach for their usual live music-restaurants-and-retail-shopping? Because, if they’re not, they’re primed to bring the virus back to the house. Best also ask yourself if you want to spend that much time with house guests.

Consider someplace-not-my-house this year. Most of us live in small quarters. Most of us don’t have maid services and personal chefs on call. Rather than stressing, maybe this is the year house guests ante up for a hotel room.

It can be done. We said goodbye Sunday to our son, daughter-in-law and grandson from Atlanta. It’s been a year since they were last here. We spent time at the beaches, at Truman Waterfront Park; on the water with HonestEco’s Capt. Brady and Kelcie; doing take-out from favorites and lunch at Geiger Key; stopping at Dairy Queen. We did one lunch-shopping outing to the Seaport on a Saturday and will not do that again. Packed bars and restaurants; no one in masks except servers; pretty much a tourist mob scene that puts local workers at risk.

What about February? Here’s what I texted a friend: February way too far out to predict. We are masked pretty much everywhere and most of us are doing a good job of wash-mask-distance. Our numbers remain low. It’s beautiful now; the water, air quality better than in decades thanks to no ships and slow season coupled with COVID-19. Probably safer than most places — if you stay off lower Duval and out of the bars. Even now in the very slow season, there are a lotta irresponsible, obnoxious and entitled tourists arguing about masks and politics, etc. February historically is our busiest month so how it will be then is anyone’s guess. Locals will be fine. But if the town is overrun with the “you can’t make me” crowd, could be a different story.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor of Key West Island News and owner of KeyWestWatch Media.

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