Key West in the time of COVID19
What's the protocol for posting travel photos during a pandemic? I’m careful with what I share online, but when I travel, I document the trip on Facebook. I like taking photographs and then editing, cropping, curating, telling a story. My 97-year-old father enjoys keeping up with what we’re doing. My husband and I have a reputation for always being someplace else. The last few years we’ve elected not to go far, although my father encourages us to travel now while we’re still young. (It’s nice that he thinks we’re still young.)
We decide on Key West and the Everglades. We’ll search for manatees, flamingoes, six-toed cats and eat lots of fish. We binge watch Bloodline and on March 11, 2020 fly out of LAX to Miami. At this point the White House resident hasn’t declared a state of emergency, but we have of course heard about the virus. We carry anti-bacterial lotion. We make a pact to socially distance ourselves, which we are already good at.
Our first night in Key Largo is wonderful. We don’t find manatees, but we do find the Caribbean Club where Bloodline and the movie Key Largo were filmed. The next morning, we snorkel in the bay where we see no fish but also no crocodiles as warned by the sign. We pack up the rental car and drive south through the keys. The bridges are engineering wonders. The water is an indescribable color of blue. We eat shrimp and lobster and key lime pie. There are life sized concrete manatee mailboxes on the road which we decide count as manatee sightings.
Our hotel, The Orchid Key Inn, is truly an orchid oasis with twenty rooms and a cool fifties motel vibe. The nearby Butterfly Conservancy is phenomenal. Two flamingos named Rhett and Scarlett are courting. We drink good beer by the beautiful hotel pool where a green iguana slides down a palm tree. The next day we tour the Hemmingway House with the six toed cats who are defiantly aloof and Harry Truman’s Little White House with seniors who are obviously Republican. This is the first time we stand in a group of humans who are all in the at-risk group, like we are. We coat ourselves with anti-bac. Perhaps this will protect us.
That afternoon, the White House resident declares a national emergency, but nothing changes in Key West. We go to a songwriter’s session which luckily for us turns out to be not popular with the spring break crowd and means we can continue to practice our socially distant skills. The next morning, we visit the African Burial Grounds, which are sobering. In 1860, three illegal slave ships carrying 1500 Africans were intercepted by the US Navy and diverted to Key West. Hundreds of them died and are buried here.
We walk through the quieter part of the island to find lunch. Key West reminds us so much of the Garden District in New Orleans, if that neighborhood was on an island surrounded by blue/green water, if the windows in those houses were all open to catch the breeze, if Jimmy Buffet was the soundtrack. We eat grouper tacos and fried green tomatoes with shrimp for lunch. The waiter says we can have beers to go. There is a St. Patrick Day’s parade on Duval Street and day-trippers from the cruise ships in the crowded bars. We find a quiet corner in Hemmingway’s favorite bar and I call my father. He’s fine and thrilled to tell me that his two oldest grandchildren have called to check in.
We hear Billy the Squid and the Sea Cow Drifters in another open-air bar and talk to a couple from New York who are very nice but don’t understand social distancing. They insist on hugging me when we leave. We drive to Marathon Key the next day for their Seafood Festival, arriving early, before the crowds. Half of one aisle in the craft section is devoted to Trump campaign merchandise. We sit in the back of a tent and watch the locals great each other. “Oh, I don’t care,” they say. “I’m still going to give you a hug.” In the bathroom a woman sighs impatiently as I wash my hands. I’m singing happy birthday in my head I tell her. “Oh, that,” she says. We stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer (Protestant version) and the Star-Spangled Banner. I’ve never experienced this particular holy trinity but perhaps it will protect us.
We stop in Key Largo on our way out of the keys and finally see a real manatee in the water near a very divy bar where a guitar player sings Hank Williams and the shrimp, fish, shrimp and scallops are tasty. The waitress swabs the table with a towel but no disinfectant. Perhaps the combination of salt, sea, sand and alcohol shields everyone. That night we stay in hotel near the Everglades. The mayor of Miami has tested positive and the virus is being taken more seriously. The grocery store where we shop for take out food is closing at eight so the employees can be trained on how to keep everything clean. The woman at the register is worried. She tells me to be safe and I tell her the same. Perhaps kind words will save us.
We drive to the Everglades the next morning and take an open-air tram ride through Shark Valley. The alligators and crocodiles are not worried. The birds are only worried about the alligators and crocodiles. In Miami we are early for check in, but our room is ready. When I ask if restaurants are open, the receptionist says she hasn’t heard otherwise. At a nearby Cuban restaurant, an older woman is seated nearby. The waitress hugs her; they kiss cheeks. An even older man wearing a coat and tie, so very frail, walking slowly with a cane, is escorted to her table by the restaurant manager. The woman’s face lights up when she sees him. The manager suggests several entrees in Spanish. They order wine. She coughs and then she coughs again.
We make it through the Petrie swamp of the Miami Airport and the flight home. Now we stay at home as ordered. We’re apparently healthy but who knows for sure? We are sadly keeping away from my father for the near future. Perhaps this will protect him from our trespasses.
(A tiny version of this was published line here.)