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With COVID Numbers Rising, Key West Scales Back Its Biggest Party Of The Year

 The Fantasy Fest parade on Saturday night normally draws tens of thousands of people to Duval Street in Key West, like this one in 2019.
Rob O'Neal
Florida Keys News Bureau
The Fantasy Fest parade on Saturday night normally draws tens of thousands of people to Duval Street in Key West, like this one in 2019.

Last year, the biggest event on the Keys calendar was canceled because of COVID-19. This year, Fantasy Fest is back on for late October. With cases spiking on the island, it will look different from previous years.

After tourists filled the Keys for the Fourth of July and lobster mini-season a few weeks later, the local administrator for the state Department of Health said cases spiked on the island chain. The only hospital in Key West, Lower Keys Medical Center, changed its status from green to yellow — meaning it had to bring in extra staff — for the first time during the pandemic.

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All that worries Key West Mayor Teri Johnston — especially when Fantasy Fest traditionally brings big crowds downtown.

"No matter how you try to spread people out, the night of the parade there are 50,000 people clumped up on Duval Street," she said.

One commissioner suggested that Fantasy Fest participants be required to wear masks, Johnston said.

"Well, that's fine, except Fantasy Fest is a drinking event and to associate drinking events and having your mask on is ridiculous," she said.

Fantasy Fest organizers announced late Monday that the Saturday night parade and street fairs on Friday and Saturday are canceled. They also warned those planning to attend to have proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test in hand, as some venues may require them.

"I've heard from a number of event sponsors that say, oh no that slows us down too much at the door," Johnston said. "Well, you know, maybe that's the cost of hosting an event in the middle of a COVID spike."

The organizers also say people should bring masks and be prepared to wear them when they can't socially distance. They're holding off on a decision about the Masquerade March through Old Town on Friday evening. That event is a locals' favorite.

Some Fantasy Fest-related events were cancelled last week — the King and Queen contest usually raises money for a local nonprofit. And the popular Zombie Bike Ride, held on the first weekend, has also been canceled.

The CDC rates Monroe County's community transmission rate as high, with a 16.56% positivity rate for the week of Aug. 23-29.

Despite the pandemic, the Keys and especially Key West are setting all-time highs in tourism, even without cruise ships or international travelers. Hotels have been full and charging high rates. Johnston said tales taxes collected in the city in June were up almost 150% over the same month in 2019 — itself a record year for tourism.

"And I think that weighs heavily on the businesses that are saying, do I want to host this fantasy event for three days, or do I want to protect the economic viability of my business for the rest of the year?" Johnston said.

The Key West commission is meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday to discuss special events and COVID safety. After Fantasy Fest, the next scheduled big event in the Keys is powerboat races in November.

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.