I’m not going too far out on a limb making this prediction: The 2020-2021 winter season in Key West is going to break records. It shouldn’t. It will.

Come the day after Christmas, when it’s getting cold, gloomy and downright nasty up North, folks are going to do what they always do that time of year — fire up the ol’ laptop in search of sun, sand and escape. This season the pickings are slim. What with COVID-19 travel restrictions, U.S. passports aren’t welcome. Florida and Key West beckon. We’ll be the destination of choice for thousands of people with one goal: Escape this cold, dreary, cooped-up, unsafe place in which I live.

Our seasonal visitors have always looked at Key West as a mythical, tropical island paradise. I don’t blame them one bit. If I lived in Chicago and I could afford to get out, I’d already have booked my vacation. I’d already be unpacking in my second home. Who in their right minds wants to spend a COVID-19 winter up north when one could be in Key West? Our northern friends know what life’s going to be once everything moves inside for the winter. It isn’t pretty. No more walks along the river; no more watersports on Lake Michigan. No more outdoor dining.

This winter, cabin fever will have a whole new meaning. As you’ll recall, no one really went into full coronavirus mode until mid-March when the prospects of spring were around the corner. No one has experience with being winter homebound under even the most lenient of COVID-19 restrictions. So they’re going to come here. We are the escape they crave. Since the Keys have “only” had a couple thousand cases of COVID-19, “why,” they say, “Key West looks positively, safely carefree.” (They don’t grasp that a couple thousand here means darn near everyone is less than two degrees from a positive case.)

Other than our permanent snowbirds for whom Key West has long been their winter home, I wish they weren’t coming. I wish we could say “don’t come” to anyone except those with a commitment to a months-not-days stay. Sigh. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” seems to apply. I’m betting it will be a banner year for hotels and vacation rentals. Our streets, beaches, bars, restaurants and entertainment venues will be packed. Our workers are at significant risk. But the island is perceived as a safe, welcoming paradise that has somehow miraculously escaped the ravages of COVID-19. Why stay at home miserable and cold when one could be sitting on the beach at Fort Zach?

We’re left with the daunting task of staying safe in the middle of seasonal guest euphoria. We’ve got a couple months to figure it out.

Step one is for the city commissioners: Shut ‘em down. If business owners refuse to protect their staff and guests by ignoring the mask-distance-wash-crowd-size rules, shut them down. So many local businesses are doing the right things that it is an affront to them to allow a handful of owners to thumb their collective noses at the rules.

Step two is for the accommodations business: Your role is educating our hotel and vacation rental visitors. It’s not enough to stick a sheet of instructions in a three-ring-binder and call that education. You need to explain and enforce the mask-wash-distance protocols — in person and repeatedly. Tell them this applies to their Duval Crawls, too. Explain that our health systems are too small to handle a surge of cases from careless, long-term visitors. Provide Key West-themed masks at check in. Don’t let a single guest — or employee — flout the rules.

Step three is for the retail businesses: Time to re-up on the mask-up signs. As I do my errands around the island it’s increasingly clear that the signs put up a few months back are tattered, worn and cluttered with other stuff. In some cases — and new Publix comes to mind — the mask-up signs are all but gone. Get the signs — big ones — back up.

Step four is for the rest of us. Mask. Wash. Distance. Tighten up our “pods.” Take a deep breath. We live in Key West. We got this.

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

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