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Letter From Key West: Who Belongs Here Now?

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Mainland South Florida has the most cases of COVID-19 in the state. Monroe County, to the south has far fewer cases — but it's also got a much smaller population. And the Keys have done all they can to wall themselves off.

It's all led to a strange feeling as a place known for welcoming everyone suddenly changes its attitude.

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The Keys are known for a non-judgmental ethos. All welcome —like the guy who jogs around Key West wearing a big red hat and yells "WOO" at everyone who honks at him. Sometimes he carries a giant American flag. Or the older gentleman who rides his bike wearing fairy wings and boots and very little else. 

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Tamara Alvarez
The Florida Channel

For the last couple decades, that ethos has been translated into an economic imperative. The Keys spend millions of dollars a year persuading people to come down and spend their time — and money — here.

And it's worked: 75,000 people live here. We get five  million tourists a year. They spend a lot of money. It's also a lot of cars on the one and only highway. A lot of people taking up parking spots. Driving around on scooters incessantly honking the horns.

Now, that has come to a screeching halt. First we closed the bars. The cruise ships stopped coming. Then hotels were closed and there's a checkpoint at the county line. You can't get in unless you live here, work here, own property. Or bringing us things — like food and toilet paper. Some flights are still arriving but there's hardly anyone on them. The weekend before last, 20 flights came in to Key West, bringing a total of 45 people. All of them were screened and ordered to quarantine themselves for two weeks, even if they just came from Miami.

So now … it's just us. And that eternal struggle over who gets to define this place is in even sharper focus.

Conch, local or 'stranger'?

In the Keys you establish your bona fides by how long you've been here. It's the first thing people ask when they meet you. If you're from here, you’re a Conch and it's not how long you've been here but how many generations of your family have lived here.

Calling everyone who lives here a Conch is a common mistake by travel writers and mainland journalists.I always cringe when I hear it because even though it seems kind of silly I know it matters — a lot — and after almost 30 years (that's my bona fides) I get why.

Back in the pre-tourism days, the Conchs called the newcomers "strangers.” 

A checkpoint at the Miami-Dade County line means only people who live, own property or are essential workers can drive into the Keys.
Credit Adam Lindhardt / Monroe County Sheriff's Office
The Florida Channel
A checkpoint at the Miami-Dade County line means only people who live, own property or are essential workers can drive into the Keys.

And you can hear echoes of that attitude now. At the Key West City Commission meeting the other day, one commissioner — a Conch — said that even after travel is deemed OK again, he wants to keep the checkpoints up for another month.

There's some out-of-state license plate shaming going on, with people posting photos of cars with New York plates. Someone on Big Coppitt put up a sign telling people to stay off the street — a public street — if they didn't live there. There was the outbreak of fake hurricane re-entry stickers by people trying to get through the checkpoint, and a couple of busts for illegal vacation rentals. One guy on a 70-foot yacht got around that by buying a slip. It reminds me a little bit of all the rumors and threats about looters that come after a hurricane.

I get it — why people are worried when more than half the state's cases of COVID are in the three counties right above us. Honestly, I'm glad there's a checkpoint, But I also worry about what we're losing when our dominant mode is exclusion and suspicion. 

Maybe that's just the price of a pandemic. And maybe we're lucky that it's relatively simple to control access to this place — there's essentially one way in and out.

And maybe this is just the yang to the yin of the Keys. Sure, all welcome, but you're not really part of this place unless you live here. Ernest Hemingway was basically a snowbird and he didn't live here that long. But he was so mad when they put his house on a tourist map that he wrote an essay for Esquire magazine complaining about everybody coming to his door. And he built a 5½- foot brick wall around his property.

He's long gone. But those tourists line up around the block to see his house. At least they did. Back in the old days when they were allowed here.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.