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This time of year, Key West’s Duval Street teems with tourists. They’re peeling off big bucks for booze, food and tips.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the Southernmost City has been left without its economic engine. The tourists are gone. And no one knows when they will be allowed back.
That is devastating for an island that runs on visitors.
Many hospitality workers have been laid off. Schools are closed. Child-care centers are limited.
And rent is due April 1.
“I feel f--king lost,” said Josephine Miller, 37, of Key West. “This is the first time I’ve ever felt lost.”
Miller, a California native who moved to the island a year ago, lost her job at a Duval Street candy store due to the COVID-19 crisis.
She has only a bike for transportation and lives above a now-closed bar in the New Town neighborhood.
On Monday, she spent an hour trying to apply for unemployment. She has $32 to her name. And she’s trying not to cry.
“I don’t know what to do,” Miller said. “I don’t know where to go. I don’t know anything.”
Miller is already a survivor. She moved to Key West while fleeing a violent relationship.
Wednesday will be the fifth anniversary of her son’s death.
In 1994, while living in Simi Valley, she went through the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake.
“This is completely different,” Miller said. “I would much rather go through another earthquake.”
On the street
Key West’s famous Duval Street was quiet on Monday afternoon. So very quiet.
Retailers had already started shuttering their shops ahead of the city’s 5 p.m. deadline for nonessential businesses to close.
The yellow Conch Tour trains and other tour buses stopped rolling several days ago. Watersport companies are in limbo. Bars like Willie T’s and Rick’s and Sloppy Joe’s are empty and closed.
But the Key West spirit remains.
“Long live the Conch Republic!” says a personalized closed sign outside Rick’s. “We hope each new day brings us closer to an end for this pandemic.”
Restaurants where tourists hung out are now offering just takeout, curbside pickup and delivery. No diners allowed on the premises.
The Courthouse Deli had a handwritten sign on its front door allowing only four people inside at a time.
Several locals on Duval, the iconic downtown street that runs from the Atlantic to the Gulf, greeted each other in passing. A golf cart filled with people hoisting beer cans rumbled by the closed-down shops.
“This is a small town now,” said Lynn Lydamore, a server in Key West who stopped her Harley-Davidson motorcycle to chat with a friend.
They greeted one another by asking how each is holding up through the pandemic. Lydamore said she is trying to stay as positive.
A few retailers were holding out till the 5 p.m. deadline, including a cigar shop and a couple of clothing stores.
“We have beautiful dresses,” the owner of French Kiss boutique, which has been on Duval for 25 years, said to the rare passersby. She said her name is Sharon and that this is the time of the year when she makes the most money.
Artisans, a shop that sells jewelry and collectibles, posted a sign stating, “We wish all of you good luck and good health and we look forward to seeing you on the other side of this pandemic!”
Outside Caroline’s restaurant, Molly Smith held up a sign advertising curbside pickup. A woman serving iced coffee at Cuban Coffee Queen rang up a customer’s order wearing latex gloves.
Miller, the out-of-work candy worker, knows nonprofit organizations have resources for her. But without a car it’s not a simple task. Stock Island, a mile or two away, has the SOS Foundation, for instance, a large food pantry.
A few landlords say they’re cutting rent for their tenants due to the coronavirus.
“We told our tenants yesterday that for the next three months, at least, their rent will go down by half,” Michael Blades posted on Facebook. Blades said they would have liked to waive the rent altogether, but just can’t. Landlords have costs linked to the property.
“I think that our solution helps share the coming burden,” Blades wrote. “I cannot judge other landlords, but would hope that others would be compassionate and understanding and do whatever they can to help others during this impossible time.”
Miller hasn’t heard anything from her landlord about catching a break while she’s unemployed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
She’s more worried about paying the bills and keeping a roof over her head than being infected, she said.
Miller knows others are suffering, too. “A few of my buddies are homeless,” she said.
“I have faith, I don’t have hope,” Miller said.
But the crisis, the isolation, is wearing on her.
“I’m stuck at home with my ... thoughts, and that’s hell.’’
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