New Year’s Eve Celebration Continues In Key West Under Tightened COVID-19 Restrictions

Wed. December 16, 2020 12:00 AM
by Ross Forman

A tradition in Key West, Florida that dates back to 1996, which brings international notoriety and a super-sized splash of LGBT sass, has been hit hard by the pandemic.

This Florida city, about a 3-hour drive south of Miami, has been the New Year's Eve high-profile home of Sushi, the island's best-known drag queen who, every December 31st, descends from a giant high-heel shoe to welcome the new year. She is lowered from a balcony of a gay bar, the Bourbon Street Pub, to the cheering crowd below on Duval Street.

Sushi still will welcome in 2021, though differently from past years.

Gary “Sushi” Marion will be in that same red shoe when it drops, but this December 31, it will happen in the back of the Bourbon Street Pub, which has hosted the famous shoe drop that has been televised on CNN for 23 years, said bar owner Joe Schroeder, according to the Miami Herald. The back of Bourbon is an outdoor space and people can buy tickets and sit at tables for the shoe drop, Schroeder said.

“It's just moved into a more controlled environment,” Schroeder told the Herald. “We'll make sure they're seated at tables and watching it more like a show instead of standing in the street.”

Plus, the Sushi sensation will happen earlier – at 9 p.m. local time, not midnight.

That's because Key West will have a 10 p.m. nightly curfew from Dec. 31 until 6 a.m. Jan. 3, according to an order issued by the mayor. People must be off the streets from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. during the weekend, unless they are involved in essential work or are first responders. All non-essential Key West businesses must close at 10 p.m. on Dec. 31 and people must be home or in their vacation rentals no later than 10:30 p.m.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly hit the Key West LGBT community … hard!

“The hotel industry was hit extremely hard because, unlike other businesses, we were not only slow with lack of business, but our industry is also semi unique in that it is like a retainer-based service, so we had to (issue) refunds for all the pending reservations that were cancelled. Combine that with the fact that the Florida Keys were closed for two months to tourism,” said Anthony Sibilly-Juarez, general manager of the popular gay hotel Equator Resort (www.equatorresort.com).

“It is difficult to gauge the overall (impact of the pandemic) since each subindustry, (such as) retail, attractions, restaurants, etc., differs, however, the Florida Keys are somewhat different than others and I think it will feel the growing pains longer than some. We are a 3-part industry: cruise ship visitors, driving traffic from mainland Florida, and fly-in visitors. Each industry is connected. For example, cruise ship visits may not affect me daily, however surveying guests, roughly 75 percent of them first visited Key West on a cruise ship. So, while we are focusing on the here and now, I think 'new traffic' to the Florida Keys may be a long-term side effect that many have not anticipated.”

Sibilly-Juarez said there were two low points in 2020, starting with the closure of the Florida Keys, which resulted in shutting down businesses and processing refunds, which was in the five-figure range, he said. And when things finally reopened, and the Equator Resort was able to bring back all its staff, the cancellation of all the events deterred a lot of visitors, resulting in even more cancellations. “At (that) point financially we had to limit staffing to a degree, and this was the point that hit us emotionally,” he said. “We struggled through the slow aspect of business, but to take a great staff and have to tell most of them again that they have to go home … that was when I had to lock myself in my office for a few hours to be alone.”

So many major Key West events were cancelled in 2020, drastically impacting the LGBT community, including Pride, Fantasy Fest and the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic.

Thankfully, in the second half of 2020, visitors came back to Key West, and to the Equator Resort. Just not in droves like past years. “Even without all the big parties and congested crowds, everyone who came – at least at the Equator Resort – was of the like-mind: they wanted to be safe, understood the situation and made the best of it.”

Key West has been running with a Mask Up campaign. Businesses require masks and, during a recent visit, police patrol on Duval Street reminded those not wearing a mask that one is required. Any person in Key West not inside their home, inside their hotel room or inside their vehicle is required to wear a mask.

“We have been fortunate to be fully booked through most of the months since reopening (of) the Florida Keys (as) we have a loyal group of guests,” Sibilly-Juarez said. “I think at the beginning most people were just looking for a close, easy escape from the long lockdown and that's why we had mostly Florida visitors. But since then, I think people are beginning to feel the need to normalize travel in the current situation since it's obvious that not much is going to change anytime soon.

“The Equator Resort follows all precautions. For example, we will not book rooms back-to-back. After each departure, the room is left vacant and unbookable. This allows us 24 hours of ozone, cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing. We try to make as many of the changes on the back end so that it is not impacting the guest experience, though of course somethings are obvious, such as masks and lack of housekeeping service in the rooms, as regulated by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

Sibilly-Juarez, 39, has worked at the Equator Resort for almost 5 years and has been its general manager for 4 years. He said travelers should consider multiple factors when traveling during a pandemic.

First, yes, there are of course risks with traveling, “but your safety really is in your hands in regard to the precautions you take,” he said. Second, expect change – be it day to day or even hour by hour, as local regulators alter things. And finally, “remember that your travel experience is not going to be 100 percent the same as pre-pandemic. Do not expect any travel to be 'normal,' so adapt to the change and do not get mad at people enforcing these regulations,” he said.

“The biggest reason to choose Key West (for a vacation now is), we adapt. We are used to 'situations' arising, such as hurricanes. We always adapt and no matter the ongoing situation, the city and the locals will make it feel like a vacation.”

Equator Resort is one of several male-only resorts in Key West and has drawn rave reviews for its 2020 showing. For instance, the Equator Resort is the only one of the three male-only resorts that is not open to the public and does not sell day-passes. “So, in regard to safety, it is guests and guests of guests only,” Sibilly-Juarez said. “(It is) much easier to social distance on your terms and for your safety (at the Equator Resort).”

Equator Resort is an easy, safe 5-minute walk from Duval Street and the gay bars around about 10-minutes away.

“We have focused a lot of the back of the house safety measures for our guests and staff. That has been our No. 1 priority,” he said. “Safety alone should be an encouragement and the Equator as well as the city has been on top of these safety details. We also understand that the pandemic took a hard hit for people financially, so for most of the reopening since June 1st, we reduced our rates drastically to help accommodate guest needs. Another aspect to help people feel more secure in their travel choices is that our cancellation policy is designed with the guests in mind. If things change and someone needs to cancel, we do not charge cancellation fees and the deposits are given back in a gift certificate that does not expire, so they can rebook when they are ready.”

Key West is definitely worth the trip, even during the pandemic – and about a 3-hour non-stop flight from Chicago O'Hare International Airport on United Airlines. Here's a dandy dozen Key West Musts, in no particular order:

History of Diving Museum

Look for diving items from more than 30 countries and the museum has the world's largest collection of armored suits, diving helmets and other diving accessories.

Ernest Hemmingway Home

The legacy of Ernest Hemingway in Key West dates to the 1930s and his house is a major tourist attraction. The grand Southern exterior of the house protects his eclectic collection of furniture, art and other accessories while the grounds act as a haven for wildlife, plants, and countless cats.

Old Town Literary Walking Tour

Visit the homes and haunts of writers tied to Key West, such as Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, and Shel Silverstein.

Sunset at Mallory Square

Geographically, this is the southernmost end of the United States and always a perfect spot to watch the sunset, with plenty of nearby cocktail options. Mallory Square also has performers, artists and numerous food vendors.

Drag Shows

Two must-see spots for sass: Aqua and 801 Bourbon Bar, both located on Duval Street and about a 3-minute walk between them. Aqua has nightly performances, as does 801, which also has Drag Bingo every Sunday night. Bring your $1s or $5s, the dancers walk around and, because of the pandemic, now use a fish net to capture tips.

The Southernmost House

This boutique hotel is also a museum, built in 1897 and has hosted over 20 presidents and dignitaries. And no two rooms look the same.

Pose at Mile Marker 0

US Highway 1 is a 2,369-mile-long interstate that connects almost every city on the East Coast. Mile Marker 0 is a photo-must.

Pose at the Southernmost Point in the Continental USA

Everyone gets a selfie at this colorful concrete buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S.

Duval Street

Always a fun stop as Duval Street is filled with restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, clothing boutiques, and more.

Kermit's Key West Lime Shoppe

No Key West visit is complete without a slice (or two) of this local favorite, and Kermit's has been offering key lime treats for more than 20 years.

Breakfast at Blue Heaven

What formerly was a boxing ring where Hemingway refereed, Blue Heaven is known for its brunch and super-sized meringue. Yes, key lime pie for breakfast is acceptable – and encouraged – at Blue Heaven.

Sunset Cruise

Another must, especially if you need a new profile photo for social media. Try the Commotion on the Ocean Sunset Sail from Fury Water Adventures, featuring live music, appetizers, and plenty of drinks. Or the Champagne Sunset Sail on the Schooner America 2.0 from Classic Harbor Line, with drinks, snacks, and a friendly, professional crew.