March 14, 2020

The coronavirus discussion has squarely placed the Florida Keys, and Key West in particular, in a “between a rock and a hard place” situation as it relates to the potential for an outbreak, given the heightened attention to the subject that grows seemingly by the hour.

Welcome to the new “abnormal”.

First, we should all agree if COVID-19 were to enter the Keys, and so far, there have been no confirmed cases — which could be at least partially due to a lack of testing — it could be disastrous for Keys tourism. Not forever, but certainly for a period long enough to harm our economy.

The CDC (https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/covid-19-cruise-ship) stated this week that because of the unusual nature of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. government is advising U.S. travelers, particularly those with underlying health issues, to defer cruise ship travel. U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the nation on Wednesday night and outlined other travel conditions as well.

The government is advising people not to cruise.

If it’s a clear enough danger for the government to issue this type of communication, Monroe County’s leadership should be heeding that advice.

The CDC also states that recent reports of COVID-19 on cruise ships increases the risk of infection to cruise ship passengers and crew because like many other viruses, COVID-19 appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships, for extended periods of time.

Again, this CDC communication is specific to cruise ships.

Airlines are excluded because those travelers, even though in close proximity to others, are not confined to those conditions, generally, for more than a few hours.

Every day that passes, and the daily updates are staggering, brings our community closer and closer to that one person who could bring the virus here. Each cruise ship that docks in Key West runs the potential risk for dropping the COVID-19 virus upon us.

In 2019, Key West had just over 913,000 cruise passengers disembark in our port. If only 1% of that number were infected, the toll on our community could be immeasurable.

In some ways, anticipating that first confirmed case, whether from a cruise ship or otherwise, is like a game of Russian Roulette — you know there’s a bullet in the chamber, you just don’t know when it will fire.

Another significant factor is that people with heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and other conditions that cause suppression of their immune systems — in other words, older adults — are at a high risk of serious disease if infected. Our population has its share of seniors, with and without a compromised immune system. That should cause concern, too.

Besides the threat from cruise ships, we are seeing massive, unprecedented closings and cancellations globally. The mayor of Miami-Dade County has issued a State of Emergency, plus large events like Calle Ocho and the Ultra Music Festival have both been cancelled.

The Walt Disney Company is closing its theme parks worldwide. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have all suspended their seasons.

These closings and suspensions represent big revenue, so those decisions must have been difficult.

But they were made in the interest of public safety.

If the coronavirus outbreak was “much ado about nothing,” as some have opined, these types of responses would not have occurred.

So, if there’s an opportunity to close our port and eliminate one aspect of the coronavirus equation, one that the CDC has clearly identified as a major contributor to the spread of the virus, why not consider that?

The U.S. Coast Guard has the power to close the Key West ports in the short term. The City of Key West might have to creatively consider some forms of local business relief for those who rely so heavily on tourism and cruise passengers. At least then, we might counteract the effects of a temporary closure. It will still sting, but it may not bleed.

Let’s be clear about this; this is not an indictment on the cruise industry or tourism. Rather, it’s about a responsible action for a potentially pandemic situation in the Keys.

As a community, we should err on the side of caution and give more than casual consideration to this direction, regardless of the potential financial implications. Because this is more about human safety than it is anything else.

Ultimately, it will be a very difficult discussion and the Key West Citizen Editorial Board debated the pros and cons of a port closure extensively.

We strongly recommend that the Coast Guard, along with the support of the City of Key West and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, temporarily close the Key West port to incoming cruise ships.