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Less Wasting Away In Margaritaville? How Pandemic May Change Key West

Despite COVID-19, tourists have continued to come to Key West and drink. Some say the pandemic is an opportunity to re-evaluate the island's hard-partying ways.
Despite COVID-19, tourists have continued to come to Key West and drink. Some say the pandemic is an opportunity to re-evaluate the island's hard-partying ways.

People have been drinking more during the pandemic. Almost a quarter of adults in the Keys were already heavy or binge drinkers. Now some are rethinking the town's party scene.

Like a lot of people, Dawn Wilder first saw Key West as a tourist.

"Oh my goodness, we drank far more than we ever did back home," she said.

When she moved to Key West, she realized it wasn't only the tourists who drank a lot. Drinking during the day — and drinking every day — is pretty normal in the city.

"It's called Keys disease and a lot of people wear it as a badge," Wilder said. "It's not necessarily looked upon as bad."

In 2001, after living in Key West for a couple years she got her dream job: singing at a bar called the Bull. It's on Duval Street, the main tourist drag lined with shops and art galleries — and lots and lots of bars.

But getting her dream job also led to a lot of stress. And she was going through a divorce.

"The next thing you know, it's like 'Send me up a shot of tequila.' And then somebody says 'Can I buy you a shot? Another shot of tequila.' It's just so easy."

And it wasn't just while she was working.

"What would I do on a day off? Well, maybe I'd go in and hang out with my friends who were working at the bar. And maybe I'd sit there and listen to music in the day and well, you're in the bar so let's have a drink and … it is a way of life here, it really is," she said.

After a few months, Wilder says that she was getting erratic and irresponsible. She was saying inappropriate things on stage and getting belligerent with a manager. She started going to meetings and stopped drinking.

Some people told her it was "dangerous" to keep working at a bar while trying to stay sober but she's made it so far. For 18 years.

From The Military To Margaritaville

John Vagnoni hitchhiked down the Keys in 1973, then took a city bus into town. It dropped him at the Green Parrot, a bar a block from the southernmost end of U.S. 1. Pretty soon, he got a job there — as a bartender.

"The clientele was pretty much hippies and sailors because there was still Navy there," he said. "They were all around the same age and away from home."

In the '70s, the Navy closed most of their operations in town. In the '80s, John became a partner in the Green Parrot. Also in the '80s, the old, narrow bridges that span the Keys were replaced with a new, wider, safer version of the Overseas Highway. That opened the way for big-time tourism.

Another guy who got to the Key West around the same time as John had come up with a new nickname for the city — Margaritaville. In 1987 Jimmy Buffett opened his first bar and restaurant named after his island anthem.

Vagnoni says the bar scene really changed in those years.

"It went from the military to Margaritaville," he said.

Do You Want A Beer With That Dress?

Teri Johnston left Illinois and came to Key West for the weather, 22 years ago

She quickly realized that the social scene revolved around drinking — way more than in Illinois.

"It was a real shock, actually," she said. "People drink everywhere."

She noticed it in social gatherings — and when she became a city commissioner.

"We had items come in front of us where a dress shop would want to serve wine and beer," she said.

Now Johnston is the mayor, presiding during the pandemic when she's had to make tough calls like ordering a 10 p.m. curfew on New Year's weekend.

But other than that New Year's weekend in Key West, there's no curfew in the Keys. Bars can stay open till 4 a.m. And the tourists keep coming.

Johnston says it's time to re-evaluate the high-volume, hard-partying approach to tourism. The pandemic hasn't just changed Key West, she says.

"We're going to travel differently. The era of mass tourism and mass events, I think are really going to struggle," Johnston said. "I would be surprised if they ever came back the way that they were before the pandemic.

And the mayor says the enforced break in daily happy hour meetups may wind up having some benefits for the health of Key Westers.

"I think it's opened us up to maybe breaking some bad habits and one of those maybe is that you don't have to head to happy hour every night."

Dawn Wilder, from her seat on stage at the Bull, is skeptical that Key West can shed its hard-drinking allure.

"Do I think we'll have less people? Yes. But people are here and the people that are coming are coming because it's a party town. That's what they're here for," she said. "They're coming for the ocean but they're also coming for the unlimited beer, wine and champagne on the snorkel boat. It's just what we do here."

This story was originally produced for The Pulse, a health show from WHYY in Philadelphia.

Copyright 2021 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.