PERDIDO KEY, Fla. — Nothing was going to stop the dead fish from flying.
Not the governor next door. Not the leftover hurricane damage. And definitely not the pandemic.
Cameron Price grabbed the mic with one hand and scooped a ray-finned mullet out of a cooler with the other. He turned to the 1,000 or so revelers crowding the shoreline behind the famed beach bar that literally straddles the Florida-Alabama state line.
“The Flora-Bama is the last bastion of freedom in America,” he said to cheers on a recent Saturday. “It is so awesome to see all of you guys out there without masks, enjoying yourselves in the sunshine, in the salt air, and just having such an awesome time out here.”
Flora-Bama’s Interstate Mullet Toss has been a springtime tradition for nearly 35 years: People wait in line for hours to test how far they can throw a dead fish across the state line. It’s the bar’s biggest weekend, attracting upward of 30,000 people over its typical three-day run and generating millions for the local economy. Beachfront rentals and hotels from Gulf Shores, Ala., to Pensacola, Fla., are booked up months in advance.
But this year’s event, pushed into fall by the coronavirus pandemic, was as much a celebration of what’s legal in Florida as what isn’t in Alabama, like lottery tickets, buying liquor on Sunday, and the freedom to attend a massive beach party unconstrained by masks.
That fierce independence, ingrained in coastal Alabama and Panhandle Florida culture, politics and faith, dovetails with the economic realities that the pandemic has exposed: financial fatigue suffered by small businesses like the Flora-Bama, which depend on tourists to stay afloat.
A city councilman from the Alabama side of the line, one of the celebrity tossers that day, hammered home that point. He stepped up to the circle, fish in hand, and called on the crowd to stand and join him in celebrating what he called the best country in the world. “USA! USA! USA! USA!” they chanted.
Flora-Bama is the mother ship for a collection of more than a dozen bars stacked on top of each other — including one that strung clothesline over its main stage, affixed with roughly 400 bras — a restaurant, yacht club and marina, a liquor and lottery store, and a package store. Formed in 1964 and privately held, its four owners and 24 stockholders take pride in its unvarnished, roadhouse appeal.
Flora-Bama shut down on March 16 and stayed closed until mid-May. During that time, the owners ordered food trucks to serve free meals to employees and their families three times a week and kept hourly workers on the payroll. But the bar’s restaurant license — and a Paycheck Protection Program loan worth somewhere between $1 million and $2 million — saved them: First, with a soft reopening at limited capacity, then a gradual shift to normal service. The bar kept most of its 500 employees, five of whom reported testing positive for the coronavirus, said Pat McClellan, one of the owners, and did its best to keep its 1,500 musicians still playing, even if they had to perform to an empty room and collect tips over Facebook Live with Venmo.
The annual event highlighted the patchwork of sometimes conflicting guidance from local and state governments on mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, the politicization of masks, and the struggle for survival in a regional economy battered by the pandemic and hurricane season. And it reflects a dilemma confronting countless small companies across the country: a desire for normalcy and the preservation of traditions that distinguish their communities, despite the health risks that come with that.
Restaurants have been among the hardest-hit small businesses during the pandemic, with more than 100,000 long-term or permanent closures between March and September, according to the National Restaurant Association.
The Flora-Bama was determined to survive, but on its own terms. By Mullet Toss weekend, scattered bottles of hand sanitizer and a gift shop sign asking customers to not try on the T-shirts were among the few visible coronavirus countermeasures. Even as infections and fatalities continue to mount — more than 230,000 Americans have died so far, including nearly 20,000 in Florida and Alabama combined — no one seemed worried.
The community is a bastion of faith, too. The Flora-Bama holds a weekly church service that draws up to 1,200 worshippers on a regular Sunday and 8,000 on Easter, crammed together in white folding chairs, bloody marys in hand, waiting to get baptized in the Gulf of Mexico.
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The Mullet Toss usually happens the last weekend of April, when the beaches are clear. In previous years, it’s raised tens of thousands of dollars for local youth charities and sustained the tourism-dependent Gulf Coast. But the pandemic cut off the usual hordes of spring breakers and led to the cancellation of Hangout Fest, a three-day music festival on the Gulf Shores beach, in May. The Flora-Bama’s owners did not want Mullet Toss 2020 to be another casualty. So when Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) allowed bars to reopen, the Mullet Toss was rescheduled for Oct. 23-25.
Ruthie Wynn of Grand Bay, Ala., with her freshly painted hot pink fingernails and dirty blonde waves, wasn’t here for the politics or the revelry. She came to win.
She has thrown mullets every year since 1999, and had won her category (women 50 to 59) for the past seven. Every year on New Year’s Day, she requests time off from her job as a construction superintendent for Mullet Toss weekend, rents a condo and brings her family to celebrate. One year, her company even sponsored her and printed T-shirts with the words, “Ruthie is ruthless” and “Ruthie dominates at the Flora-Bama Mullet Toss.”
Because there wasn’t much notice for this year’s event, she just came for the day on Saturday. Wynn downed a double-shot Bushwhacker — Flora-Bama’s signature drink, essentially a milkshake mixed with five kinds of liquor and topped with a maraschino cherry — and stepped up to the circle.
“We don’t need to tell you what to do,” one of the emcees said.
In 1984, Flora-Bama’s first two owners, Joe Gilchrist and McClellan, were looking for a way to drum up business during the slow season in April when they heard about a popular cow-chip throwing contest in Wyoming. They made a few regional adjustments — mullets are indigenous to the area, where seafood thrives — grabbed some friends and a cooler, and made up a sport.
Contestants pay $15 to step up to the 10-foot circle drawn in the sand and dig through an ice chest to select the perfect mullet. There are a few ways to throw one, and most experienced tossers have a method they swear by: scrunching it up like a baseball; folding it in half with your pinkie behind the gills; clenching it by the tail and throwing it like a vertical boomerang; or just grabbing it by the middle like a football and slinging it like Drew Brees. Spectators along the 150-foot course — which was shorter this year, kept to just the Florida side of the beach — follow the fish’s flight to see how far it’ll go and try to dodge the collateral guts. Once it lands, and the distance is measured and announced, the thrower is directed to retrieve the fish — which, if it’s a young woman, is always encouraged to “run like Baywatch” by the male emcee.
Anita Parsons King, 61, from Baton Rouge, didn’t do any running. But when she stepped up to the circle for her first-ever mullet toss on this Saturday morning, the emcee told her he’d add an extra 10 feet to her score for her top. Later that afternoon she tossed again — three times in a row, yelling “For Trump!”, who had held a rally in nearby Pensacola the night before, as she threw the slippery goner head over tail.
Later that afternoon, King was one of 12 contestants in the bikini contest. At least 300 people pressed in under tents in the Flora-Bama’s downstairs bar, standing on tiptoes, clamoring to catch a glimpse of the contestants. King danced on the stage to the live band’s subdued jazz, shimmying beneath a massive “Trump 2020” flag and clad in a black mesh bathing suit top with the words “Trump 2020,” a fire engine red “Trump: Make America Great Again” bucket hat, temporary tattoos across her chest and in the small of her back, and a leopard print felt tail attached to her tennis skirt (for Halloween).
The Gulf Coast is historically conservative and, recently, that means Trump country. In 2016, Donald Trump won 77.4 percent of the vote in Baldwin County, Ala. Just across the border, in swing-state Florida, the race was closer — but Escambia County, Fla., where Perdido Key is located, still voted 58.3 percent for Trump.
King didn’t speak to Trump’s mixed messaging on the coronavirus or his own bout with it after an outbreak at the White House earlier in October. But she says she can’t imagine a world in which Trump doesn’t win Tuesday’s election. He’s the only candidate who makes sense to her and her idea of a post-pandemic future, one in which the economy survives.
“This makes me happy to see people here,” she said. “They need to open up because, let me tell you, once it’s your time to go, God is going to tell you it’s your time to go. Not any kind of COVID-19 virus.”
Chris, 30, is also from Louisiana but declined to give his last name because of privacy concerns. His bachelor party in Orange Beach just happened to coincide with the Mullet Toss. He didn’t throw any fish Saturday, because he saw it as a waste — back home, he said, he’s used to using nets to catch mullets for eating. But he echoed a similar lack of fear that attending the event was a risk to his health, or anyone else’s.
“Baby, I’ve wrestled alligators down in Louisiana,” he said. “Ain’t no coronavirus gonna hurt me.”
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Florida has been hit hard by the virus, reporting at least 812,063 infections and 2,973 deaths since Feb. 29, according to state health department data analyzed by The Washington Post. Alabama, which has a quarter of the population of its neighbor, has reported at least 194,892 cases and 2,866 deaths.
The Florida Department of Health said in a statement that it was unaware of “anyone associated with Flora-Bama” reaching out to the department regarding safety precautions for the event. Karen Landers, Alabama’s assistant state health officer, said in an emailed statement that the health department doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Flora-Bama because of its Perdido Key, Fla., mailing address.
“ADPH reminds all Alabamians that, during this pandemic, the ways we have to reduce transmission of COVID-19 remain social distancing, good respiratory hygiene including good hand washing or hand sanitizing, and the use of cloth face coverings,” Landers said. “These non pharmaceutical interventions must be practiced consistently in order to be effective. ADPH will continue to monitor trends in cases of COVID-19 in Alabama as well as percent positivity of tests.”
When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, R, opened the state’s beaches, people came. Kay Maghan, the public relations manager for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach tourism, said the area had as busy a summer as 2019, unexpectedly. The mask ordinance didn’t come until later. But for the lodging, restaurants and attractions that rely on seasonal workers to meet tourist demands, spring usually means a big hiring push. This year, because of coronavirus restrictions, that didn’t happen, Maghan said. Reduced seating, the same number of visitors and fewer staff meant long waits that rivaled the lines at Disney World.
But on Sept. 16, Hurricane Sally hit Orange Beach and Pensacola — 16 years to the day after Hurricane Ivan ravaged the Flora-Bama and the rest of the Gulf Coast. Cleanup is ongoing: Along the boulevard leading to the Flora-Bama, blue tarps are still draped over gaping roofs, and chopped up oak trees and home debris are piled at the ends of sidewalks and driveways.
On the Alabama side, there were fewer lodging options due to hurricane damage. Of those that survived, about 60 percent were occupied the first two days of Mullet Toss weekend, Maghan said.
That defied expectations. Despite the virus, despite the hurricane, despite the last-minute announcement of the Mullet Toss, tourists and locals alike still flocked to the beach behind the Flora-Bama.
“I think, mentally and emotionally, people are ready for a sense of, ‘OK, life this year is not going to get the best of us,” Maghan said. “Here comes Mullet Toss. Who knew throwing a dead fish could be therapeutic?”
McClellan was there for the first Mullet Toss, and there was no way he was missing this year. He moved about the bar Sunday, the last day, in a Panama Jack straw hat, fishing shirt, shorts and boat shoes. He occasionally donned a dog-print cloth mask, when he wasn’t kissing cheeks of staff members or passing out discount cards to every patron and former employee who approached.
Earlier in the summer, when the Flora-Bama’s executives were deciding what to do about the Mullet Toss, McClellan was worried about their reputation. But when DeSantis gave the go-ahead for outdoor sporting events and dining, he figured it was safer than a packed stadium, and people could choose for themselves if they wanted to come.
“People have been cooped up,” McClellan said. “It shouldn’t be a political thing. It’s freedom of choice. It’s an individual thing. You’re empowered to do that, and there are consequences, you know, but if you want to wear a mask or not, wear a mask.”
Still, he wasn’t sure what to expect. The daily attendance hovered near 1,500, more in line with a busy summer weekend in a normal year, McClellan said. There aren’t many spots you can go for a drink or a dance that you can stay a socially distant six feet from other people. But most of the patrons, especially those who congregate around the Flora-Bama’s bars, are younger, McClellan said, so he’s not worried about them because he believes they are less at risk from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Time will tell if the Mullet Toss will carry the Flora-Bama before more stimulus help arrives from Washington, or a coronavirus resurgence occurs, or the next flock of tourists arrives for a winter in the Gulf Coast sun. All McClellan and the rest of the community can do is wait and see what the next wave brings.