I asked our friend, Key West guidebook writer Karuna Eberl if she’d like to write about what it’s like during the Florida Keys quarantine; that it must be strange without the tourists.
I didn’t expect what she wrote in her reply, which won a first place in 2020 Florida Outdoor Writers Association Excellence in Craft competition.
A Letter from the Keys. Week 6 of Florida Keys Quarantine. April 21, 2020
I was laughing at the wording in your email, that the Keys must be rather “strange” these days.
Of course the Keys are notoriously strange! But yes, with tourists outlawed and police checkpoints installed to keep it that way, it’s a different sort of irregular now.
One difference is that my husband is cussing less these days, now that he can turn onto the Overseas Highway without waiting for a line of traffic to pass.
We are also finding amusement in the new normalcy of pulling up bandito-bandana-style masks before entering the liquor store. What a world we now live in!
A real silver lining is that nature is breathing a sigh of relief.
Sea turtles and herons nest undisturbed. Underwater, the crunches of snacking parrotfish are louder than boat motors. The reefs rest, free from lotion-covered voyeurs.
Beyond, the Straits of Florida are no longer trimmed with cruise-ship sewage. This is not a dig on tourists. Nobody means harm. It is just a result of our inescapable numbers and excess.
Human hardships, of course, are the sad part of the story these days. In typical Keys spirit, people are feigning optimism.
The 20-something ringing me up at the grocery store said how thankful he was to have a job. The folks at the hardware store — the first business to open back up after Hurricane Irma — are ever welcoming. But the live webcams showing an empty Duval Street hint at a different reality.
While the Keys are largely unscathed by infections, many here will not weather this financially, especially considering the spectacular failure of Florida’s unemployment system.
Just as reefs cannot survive too many back-to-back bleaching events, many of the people here — the fishermen, bartenders, hair dressers, hotel clerks and deckhands — will not withstand our rising mass of troubles.
In 2017 it was Hurricane Irma. In 2019 the trade war crumbled the price of lobster. Now, it’s the virus. What’s next? More hurricanes, collapsing fisheries, coral disease, mosquito viruses, rising seas.
If what scientists predict is true, these events will be ever more frequent. It will be ever harder to rebound and get back to “normal.”
But the Keys will continue, at least for a little while.
They are a place of idyllic impermanence, whose story is rewritten time and again. This string of limestone poking above the sea has only existed for 125,000 years, a geological blip. It’s only been 10,000 or so years since the first inhabitants we know of came here, the Calusa.
Only 200 years for the rest. Seminoles. Spanish. Pirates. Wreckers. Spongers. Cigar-makers. Rum-runners. Shrimpers. Drug-runners. Refugees. Treasure hunters. Sport-fishers. Bubbas.
Before too long, the Keys will reopen to tourists. There will be some old faces and some new ones, not yet worn down, and excited to welcome everyone back.
Once again, music will spill from bars, the smell of conch chowder will waft through the air and social distancing guidelines will melt away, like the last ice cube in a plastic cup left on the bar at Sloppy Joe’s.
Tourists will once again cheer the sunset. The ospreys will keep fishing. The deer will keep fawning. The Keys will persevere. Until they don’t.
When you asked if I wanted to write about how the Keys are doing in these bizarre times, I’m not sure if this is what you meant. It’s a bit melancholy, but it’s hard not to just be honest about the current realities.
I guess this is also as good a time as ever to tell you that we, ourselves, are one of the statistics.
With my husband’s marine canvas business slowed, we have had to decide whether to hunker down and risk squandering our small savings on inflated rent, or move on.
I’m writing this to you as we pack up, and plan our final boat rides to our favorite heron-studded sandbars and mangrove alcoves.
We are lucky. We’re headed to Colorado to be closer to my family.
It’s sad to leave somewhere wonderful, but for us it is not a tragedy. It is the excuse we needed to start the next chapter of life’s adventures.
We’ll surely be back to the Florida Keys, but next time, we’ll be visitors.
Much laughter and peace from us to you,
This guest post was written by Karuna Eberl and Steve Alberts, who live on Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys, and bring a local’s perspective to their entertaining book “Key West & the Lower Keys Travel Guide.” (It’s a terrific book for anyone who loves the Keys, as Karuna and Steve clearly do.)
Author Karuna Eberl also writes about ideas and nature in her blog Nature Rising.
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