The stretch of sand often heralded as the world’s most beautiful beach has been largely empty, except for the lifeguards. They still take to their stands — but for much of the past three weeks they’ve been wearing respirators or "hoo rag" face masks to battle the toxic fumes and the stench.
Meanwhile the beach hotels and restaurants and bars are devoid of tourists, as are the trolleys and golf cart shuttles.
"Siesta Key is a ghost town," Russell Schall, assistant general manager of the Siesta Key Oyster Bar, said Thursday.
Welcome to the new normal in the Land of Red Tide, where dead fish clog residential canals and everyone’s praying that Labor Day turns it all around.
On Thursday morning, the air along Siesta Key was surprisingly clear of the foul odors that have chased away the crowds, giving everyone hope that Labor Day may mark the start of a renewed tourist season. You could actually breathe without strapping a device to your face.
"We haven’t had that onshore breeze," explained Roy Routh, Sarasota County’s lifeguard captain who has been patrolling these beaches for nearly three decades. "But we’re still not encouraging people to swim."
Routh knows well the unpleasant experience of inhaling the air on a beach afflicted with Red Tide. He knows what a difference a $40 respirator from a home improvement store can make.
"When I’m down there and I’m coughing and I can smell the dead fish, I put that thing on and I don’t smell anything," he said. Of course, he added, it can still be uncomfortable walking around looking like the villainous Bane from the Batman movies: "When it’s hot out and you have the mask on, you’re going to sweat under there."
Routh has seen a lot in his years patrolling the beaches — and experienced plenty of previous Red Tide outbreaks. But "in all the years I’ve worked, I’ve never seen it this bad."
The current bloom began in November, making it the longest Red Tide to hit Florida in a decade. Local governments along the 145 miles of Florida shoreline afflicted have been sending work crews out every morning to rake up all the smelly dead creatures and haul them away.
But this week Manatee County officials announced that while they will still clean the beaches on Anna Maria Island, county crews will no longer pick up the dead fish in residential canals. Instead, county officials launched what they call a Nets to Neighbors campaign, providing homeowner associations and neighborhoods with nets and buckets and special Dumpsters, so they can do the cleanup themselves.
Anna Maria is part of a string of barrier islands with glistening white beaches that have been attracting free-spending visitors since the 1920s. Just south of Anna Maria is Longboat Key, and then Siesta Key, all of which have been ravaged by the loss of tourists fleeing Red Tide.
For years Siesta Key has led something of a charmed life. The island of about 6,500 people near Sarasota was named America’s best beach in 2011 by Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman, also known as "Dr. Beach." Just last year, he and TripAdvisor named it America’s finest beach.
It’s also the setting of an MTV reality show called Siesta Key, starring the son of the show’s originator, Dr. Gary Kompothecras of the 1-800-Ask-Gary lawyer and medical referral service fame. Lots of scenes last year were shot in and around Siesta Key Village, a popular beachside shopping village.
Usually there are lots of complaints from people about not finding anyplace to park around the village, said Hope McCampbell-Wenk, owner of the Ringling Beach House, a hotel dating to the 1920s.
"Well, there’s plenty of parking now!" she said.
McCambell-Wenk said the financial toll taken by Red Tide comes on top of the losses local businesses suffered last year when Hurricane Irma swept by and knocked out power for two weeks, costing her hundreds of thousands of dollars.
She predicted the damage it’s done to the local economy will have a domino effect far beyond the beach, too, with parents pulling their kids out of karate and dance classes they can’t afford now.
She said Gov. Rick Scott’s declaration of an emergency hurt the businesses even more than the Red Tide.
"All that did was it scared everybody off," she said. "They were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s an emergency!’ They think of it like it’s a hurricane."
Her hotel, unlike many others, is at its 60-guest capacity this weekend, but she’s not making money off of it. The reason: The Ringling House offered a two-night free stay for anyone who would promise to spend $250 at all the mom-and-pop businesses in the village. All you have to do is show your receipts to the desk clerk at checkout. The guests poured in from across the bridge in Sarasota.
"The locals are trying to eat and shop here," she said. "There are lots of things to do on Siesta Key besides get in the water."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.