KEY WEST, Fla. — Heather Schrater can be found each day at the front door of Two Friends Patio Restaurant, beside bottles of hand sanitizer and a touchless thermometer she uses to check customers’ temperatures.
The tables have been sanitized and rearranged to ensure social distancing, but these days the restaurant is usually empty. Outside, the Jimmy Buffett songs that normally permeate the Key West air have been replaced with the constant roar of asphalt rollers — it turns out there is no better time than a pandemic to repave deserted streets.
The casualties of two months of coronavirus lockdowns are visible: Around the block, many shop windows on the Duval Street tourist strip are covered in brown paper. Other retail businesses have put out handwritten signs: “Everything must go!”
“I go back and forth on it,” Schrater, a bartender, said of reopening amid an ongoing pandemic. “But we need the business.”
After nearly two months with the only access roads closed off by checkpoints, the Florida Keys will reopen to visitors June 1, officials announced Sunday night.
To stop the spread of the virus from more heavily affected cities further north, the archipelago in southern Florida has been blocked off since late March to anyone who does not work or live there. Hotels were ordered closed, and passengers who flew in through the airport were screened and instructed to self-quarantine for two weeks. The isolation measures were among the strictest in the country.
The actions worked: The Keys had just 100 COVID-19 cases and three deaths, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. The three counties to the north that make up South Florida — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — had a total of more than 25,000 cases and 1,000 deaths. But as officials make the preparations to take the roadblocks down and open a tourist town to tourists, there is little agreement on what is the best course. Critics worry that the consequences will be severe; others say the economic price paid has already been too high.
Jessica Haim, who owns five retail shops on Duval Street, filed a lawsuit arguing that the “military-style” roadblock was illegal and ineffective.
Nothing prevented people in the Keys from driving to Miami, getting infected and coming back, her lawyers, Angelo M. Martin and Alan A. Fowler, argued in court papers. Nor were workers who live in other counties tested for illness as they drove through the checkpoint.
Business owners, said Haim, were all the while becoming increasingly desperate.
“We were at our wit’s end,” she said. “I was getting two to three dozen emails a day from people that were telling me: ‘We burned through our savings. We can’t wait another week. We’re waiting on food lines four days a week to feed our families.’”
Scott Atwell, the vice president and CEO of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, said at least 20 businesses have failed, and electric company records suggest that the number may be closer to 60.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘devastating,’ but for some people, it’s been devastating,” he said. “They had to pack up. They just couldn’t make it.”
Atwell said that the lack of cruise ship passengers has been particularly problematic for many businesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order that prohibits cruise voyages for the time being.
Most people supported the shutdown — for a while, he said.
“People’s patience had waned,” Atwell said. “They understood, had done their part, but it was now time to get back open or risk economic catastrophe.”
Tourism is a $2.4 billion business in the Florida Keys, and about 44% of jobs are related to that industry. The region was able to bounce back from past crises, such as hurricanes, because the rest of the country was not affected and continued to travel. But business owners say they cannot survive on locals’ dollars alone. More than 5 million people normally visit each year.
Heather Carruthers, the mayor of Monroe County, where the Florida Keys are located, said that the decision to reopen was hard, because it was clear that it was precisely because of the strict measures that the county was able to keep the virus at bay.
But as the infection rates in Miami and Fort Lauderdale have improved, she said, it became clear that the Keys had to come up with its own “new normal.”
“I have to say, it’s probably one of the toughest decisions we have ever had to make as a county,” Carruthers said. “First, closing the Keys to visitors was heartbreaking. We knew what an impact that would have on our locals, and it’s not who we are. We’re the ‘come as you are’ county.”
Health officials will be keeping a close eye on the number of infections to decide whether restrictions should be reinstated, she said.
“This is not permanent,” Carruthers said. “We are watching this every day.”
Airport screenings will also end June 1. Lodging establishments will have to submit a sanitation plan in order to reopen, and hotels will be allowed to book only at 50% capacity.
Jason G. Barnett, who owns the Artist House, a bed-and-breakfast in Key West, said he had not yet decided whether to reopen in June. If strict COVID-19 guidelines mean he cannot serve a delicious buffet breakfast or have a daily happy hour, and that he can rent only three of seven rooms, is it worth it?
“We are not reopening unless our guests and employees are safe, and I have all different concerns about that,” he said. “My gut is telling me this is a terrible idea. I pray for us, because I don’t think this is going to end well for us.”
Florida began reopening May 4 — though at that time, that excluded Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which experienced the brunt of the pandemic and remained on lockdown a little longer. Palm Beach County restarted businesses last week, and Miami-Dade and Broward counties on Monday.
Beaches are open throughout the state, except for Miami-Dade and Broward. Across the state, movie theaters, bars, nightclubs and theme parks remain closed.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has asked theme parks to submit plans for safely getting back to work and play.
“We wanted to make sure that we were proceeding very methodically, driven by data,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Orlando on Monday.
He said a spike in coronavirus cases in Miami-Dade over the weekend happened because a private lab reported hundreds of positive test results that were three weeks old.
He added that clusters of infection at prisons and especially nursing homes have been to blame for recent increases in the number of cases. Virtually all of the most recent cases in the Florida Keys are tied to a single nursing home.
Zulma Segura, who owns Bliss Restaurant in Key West, decided she was not going to wait to see what happened with infection rates. After shelling out more than $10,000 in rent for the months she was closed and $400 every month for electricity, she closed her restaurant, the end of an 11-year run.
“It’s not safe for service, not safe for cooks, not safe for anybody,” she said. “I feel like everybody’s attitude is, ‘If it doesn’t work and we all get sick and die, hey, we went for it.’”