Last updated on May 18th, 2020 at 06:40 am

Update: The Florida Keys are set to re-open on June 1. Read more.

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: 

A Letter from the Keys. Week 6 of Florida Keys Quarantine. April 21, 2020

Author Karuna Eberl on Florida Keys quarantine
Author Karuna Eberl

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,

— Karuna

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.)

 

23 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Being in and out of the Keys since the seventies I have always thought of them as a change of pace and lifestyle all need sometimes in this world. I have never thought of this as a permanent life and welcome new ways elsewhere, so with that saying Good Luck on your new adventures and discoveries. You will always remember the good times and have the pleasure of reliving them on what I am sure will be with all the return visits in the future, God Speed.

  2. Avatar

    So sad you had to leave Key West ,such a great point of view..Hope the best you both in months ahead ,but hey !! Welcome to . Colorful Colorado ️.We are No’East transplants.,went to Key Wsd every Nov for 8 years. So hope to go back one day !

  3. Avatar

    We have been coming to the keys in November for several years to enjoy the keys and to attend the NASCAR race in Homestead. They moved the race to March this year but we are still coming down in November to spend a few days (depending on the virus). Maybe we’ll replace the race with fishing! We had a June hiking trip to Peru cancelled so we are settling to an October walking trip in Savannah and the Golden Isles plus our trip to the keys. Stay safe everyone.

  4. Avatar
    hammersmith

    All across this great Nation, this same story is being told and retold over and over again. What do you do now that your means of making a living are gone, whether that be a small restaurant owner or server or a shop owner or clerk, a salesperson, a driver, a Boat Captain, or Dive leader.
    Our character as Americans is not to be out of work on the dole, we are problem solvers and doers, yet this is being taken away from all of us.
    I say your motto should be, do your best, swallow your pride, ask for help and live to fight another day.

  5. Avatar
    Rick Hocking

    Beautifully written
    I lived in Key West but left Paradise in 1996 and still regret it to this day. Your story took me back and reminded me of the fun and beauty of the Conch Republic. Good Luck and stay safe

  6. Avatar

    Beautifully written clear info on what life is really like in the Keys! Fits my experience living on Cudjoe Key, sorry to have you leave before I even met you! I came in 2004, just before the many hurricanes in 2005. At least with hurricanes we know in advance! I’ve decided tornadoes and forest fires are more scary! I hope you enjoy the seasonal changes and real hills and mountains in your new home! Looking forward to your book!

  7. Avatar

    My mother lives there and she has similar feelings. She feels like this “strange” is the best kind.

  8. Avatar
    David McConnell

    Best of luck to you guys. Yes I was born and raised in Coral Gables and I agree the Damn Yankee’s and the cruise ships have hurt the Keys so much.. God Bless you.

    • Avatar

      My son and daughter-in-law live on Sugarloaf. He is a flats fishing guide. The Keys are strong and the way everyone pulls together is remarkable.

  9. Avatar

    This is the new norm. CDC and scientists agree with each other that we stay in lockdown for another month and see what June brings. The Keys eco-system is breathing a sigh of relief. We, as Key Westers, will persevere. As of now, keep social distancing and wear masks. We’ll get through this and the next round in the fall.

  10. Avatar

    So sorry u have to leave I understand as I have been here 20 plus years but further north and seen the changes. Good luck in all your new experiences and know will miss such heartwarming people here.

  11. Avatar
    Charlie Floyd

    I really miss Cudjoe Key as my wife and I have spent some vacation time there and loved it. We also have spent time on Big Pine Key. I really miss the Keys and would love to be there right now. The article was very moving and I wish the couple the very best in the future. Be careful and be safe.

  12. Avatar
    Maureen Jenson

    I have been going to the Keys since 1981…my fav place in this country. We should have been there now, it’s been pushed to Oct…everything is changing, but our undying love for the Keys never changes!

  13. Avatar
    Mimi Mckeefery

    Karuna and Steve:
    I’m so sorry to see two of the good ones leaving…. it has been my privilege to get to know you both a little these last years!
    Amen to your poetic eulogy to the keys… after 30 years here and myriad sunsets, salty afternoons at sandbars, heartfelt gatherings at festivals and fundraisers, moonlit strolls and paddles, and the most breathtaking sunrises imaginable, I’m struggling to remain here on my island home.
    You guys always spread the love and I wish you the best in your new endeavor!!!!

  14. Avatar
    John Matonti

    Great reflection on the reality of what is being experienced. Best of luck to the both of you on future endeavors!

  15. Avatar

    Good luck to you. I know how difficult it must be to leave the Keys. I have been going down there on wonderful vacations for the past 60 years. I have so many great memories of the times my family spent there.

  16. Avatar

    A compelling read for those of us so struck by Keys charm over the decades. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  17. Avatar
    James Hargaden

    Good luck to you and THANKS for such a true tribute to the Fl Keys. Stay safe

  18. Avatar

    Moving, indeed.

    Best of luck to you. Stay healthy <3

  19. Avatar

    It certainly is a moving reply. I wish them well in their next endeavors. I also wish it wouldn’t have to be like this for them.
    Thank you for sharing!

  20. Avatar

    Well written and very realistic. I wonder how many places around the world are changing like this? At least the author has a plan “B”. There are undoubtedly many who do not.

    Nature is rebounding around the whole planet. It probably won’t last. The rebound won’t be enough to stop or change the direction of the bigger wake up call, climate change. Either we heed the lessons learned from this event and listen to the scientist, or it’s gonna hit us so hard it will make this pandemic seem – unbelievably – minor.

    • Avatar

      I dearly wish I didn’t agree with you, but, unfortunately, I do.

      SIGH.

      Good luck, and stay well!

    • Avatar

      Once a CONCH , always a CONCH ! I too know what you mean & just how you feel for I to had to leave the Keys 20 years ago after living there for 10 + years on Sumerland Key . It will always remain a part of you / run in your veins as it does me and I miss it so for it was the absolute best years of my life ! (2- boats / offshore fishing for Sails / Marlin / Dolphin / A.J.s / Snappers / spearfishing for Hogs with runs to Cuba for cheap Rum & Cigars and backcountry fishing for snapper & bugs / Stone Crab trapping / Marvin Key the Sugarloaf Lodge with its Poison Palace Tiki Bar) Good luck in Colorado , my sister and her husband been living there for 10 + years in Co. Springs(had their house burn to the ground / lost everything but their lives & cats in the Black Forrest a few years back) moved into town and just love it so . Best of luck and be safe ! You guys are the lucky few who got the chance to experience PARADISE !
      Once a CONCH , always a CONCH ! (Great Article , from the HEART)

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