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Partying Through The Pandemic: Key West Braces For 'Un-Fantasy Fest'

Costumed revelers promenade in the Fantasy Fest Masquerade March Oct. 26, 2018, in Key West.
Rob O'Neal
Florida Keys News Bureau
Costumed revelers promenade in the Fantasy Fest Masquerade March Oct. 26, 2018, in Key West.

Key West needs its tourists — they bring in an estimated $1 billion a year. But some people who live here are not so psyched to see so many visitors — especially now.

Just ask City Manager Gregory Veliz.

"I got a text the other day that one of our signs on the side of the road said 'Welcome — glad you're here.' And someone took exception to that," he said.

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For the last 40 years, tens of thousands of tourists have come to Key West in late October, for Fantasy Fest. This year, it was canceled. But people are coming anyway during the Oct. 16-24 time period. Hotels are booking up and people from out of town are making plans on social media.

"There are people very alarmed that there are masses of people descending on the city," Veliz said. "There are some business owners that are very happy that there are potentially masses of people descending on the city."

'It's no Sesame Street.'

Among the concerned is Dr. Jack Norris, chief of staff at the only hospital within 50 miles of Key West, Lower Keys Medical Center.

"We've got a group of people who are used to bucking social norms," Norris said of Fantasy Fest revelers. His office is half a block off Duval Street, right where the city usually sets up a "fantasy zone." Within that district, during the festival, you can be topless as long as you're body painted, and drinking from open containers on the street is allowed.

"They're singing, they're yelling, they're having fun. I have a permanent scar in my mind of a guy trying to become very friendly with a police car," Norris said. "That's Fantasy Fest. It's no Sesame Street."

Dr. Norris is worried this year that risqué behavior is too risky.

"Number one, are they bringing us disease, since they are more risk-tolerant than I would be? Number two, if they do get sick down here, will they be able to go home? And if they can't go home, where are they going to stay and what are they going to do? We don't have anything that's like a COVID hotel," he said.

Norris is also worried about the locals.

"If the employees of a particular establishment say these people are too high-risk, they're not wearing masks, they're coughing and breathing all over me, my ventilation may not be so well, what am I going to do? Am I really going to service these guys?"

Missing out on the biggest week of the year

Daylin Starks is general manager of Irish Kevin's, a bar in the heart of the Lower Duval Street party zone, known for having live music all day and night. She welcomes the out-of-towners.

"If they want to come down here and spend their money, there are a lot of people down here that could really use it," she said.

Fantasy Fest is the biggest week of the year for hotels and bars in Key West. Starks gets why people are concerned.

"But I also think that sometimes it's a personal choice, you know like I don't choose to go somewhere that I know is going to be very busy because I personally don't want to be there. But if you choose to, then, that's cool, too."

Those personal choices are going to play out in public and Key West's going to have to deal with it. As Veliz knows, part of running Key West is knowing that as long as they’re allowed to, people are going come.

"Am I afraid of it? No. It's going to happen," he said. "Most of these things — all of these things — are happening on private property within establishments. Now do we anticipate that they're going to spill out onto the street? Yeah, we do. And are we prepared for that? Absolutely."

The organizers and the city of Key West posted a statement Thursday and said that there will be no "Fantasy Zone" and things like public nudity and body painting will not be allowed.

They also asked locals to not encourage any crowding or extracurriculars.

"We ask our local residents to set the example for the safety, masking and social distancing and request that you not encourage or participate in any gatherings yourselves. Save up that creativity for next year!" the statement read.

Closing Duval to traffic more weekends than not

The Keys were closed to outsiders for two months in the spring. Since they've reopened, the tourists are back — even during what is usually the slowest time of the year.

"Here we are into October and we're packed every weekend," Veliz said.

A lot of the tourists coming now are from other parts of Florida, taking trips where they can drive. And when the sidewalks on Duval Street get too packed, the city closes the street to traffic.

"Mostly that’s just to get people off the sidewalk and to allow social distancing. And that's been more weekends than not lately," he said.

Key West can't stop people from coming down, wearing costumes and meeting up with friends for parties. And no one expects that the island will see tens of thousands of extra people like it would in a normal year.

But Norris says he's hearing from a lot of people who are still worried.

"The businesses don't want to close because of a surge and the employees don't want to get sick and don't want their businesses closed due to a surge," he said. "So when it comes down to it, what is going to happen? We have so many what if's, what if's, what if's."

All those what ifs are what makes this such an uncertain year.

"I can do Fantasy Fest pretty much now in my sleep. We've got Fantasy Fest down," said Veliz. "The un-Fantasy Fest or the un-event is harder to plan for."

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

Andy Newman / Florida Keys News Service
Florida Keys News Service

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.