Gov. Rick Scott, seeking to recapture tourism lost over the past month to Hurricane Irma, said Wednesday that the Florida Keys “are absolutely open for business.”
However, as Scott talked up the post-storm renewal of Florida's largest industry, as well as a premier tourist destination, significant work remained throughout the Keys to erase scars left by Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Cudjoe Key, less than 30 miles northeast of Key West.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Robert Spottswood, chief executive officer of Spottswood Companies in Key West, said --- referring to the entire 125-mile island chain --- the hope is to get “back to normal at some point in time.”
“I think we're quickly getting there,” Spottswood said. “Key West is certainly on a fast track to get back to normal and back in business. We have the vast majority of our restaurants and bars and attractions in Key West that are open and ready for business.”
The Keys modestly reopened to tourists Sunday --- meeting a deadline set by Scott --- after having been closed to non-residents since just before the powerful and deadly storm swept through the islands before impacting almost the entire state.
During a news conference Wednesday at the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel, Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson, Scott's tourism-marketing chief, said that “although we took a punch to the face, we're standing back up.”
Key West Mayor Craig Cates added, “Key West is getting better and better every day.”
Key West tourism officials posted a series of photos Sunday showing life returning to normal, from people strolling into the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum to repair work underway on the iconic “Southernmost Point” buoy, which has stood at the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street since 1983.
The Port of Key West has reopened to cruise ships. Key West International Airport has reopened. Florida Keys Marathon International Airport is processing general aviation and charter flights again.
But as state officials talked of the importance of the upcoming tourism season, Monroe County officials continued to advise prospective visitors that lodging, including RV resorts and other facilities throughout the Keys, have yet to return to normal operations.
“Potential visitors should call ahead to ensure hotels and their favorite attractions are open,” the county tourism website said Sunday. “Some hotels are accommodating displaced residents under a Federal Emergency Management Agency program. Some properties require just a few more weeks to reopen, while others need months.”
The Islamorada Resort Company estimated Monday that it may take up to six months to stagger the reopening of four resorts --- Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina, Amara Cay Resort, La Siesta Resort & Marina and Pelican Cove Resort & Marina.
“We have engaged more than 500 construction workers who are currently doing everything they can to repair our properties so that we can welcome guests back in the near future,” said Eddie Sipple, the company's area general manager.
The company noted that Starbucks in Postcard Inn Beach Resort reopened last week, the “last Starbucks for 83 miles for those travelers heading to Key West, this location offers guests, first-responders and upper Keys residents a spot to gather and converse during the rebuilding process.”
Motorists driving through the Keys continue to be warned about navigating the Lower Keys and parts of Marathon where many residences and businesses were hardest hit by the storm.
“Throughout the Keys, there are debris piles that are being picked up by cleanup contractors,” the tourism website noted.
Reopening the Keys is considered vital to the state's tourism industry, which was on pace to top last year's 113 million visitors before Irma made a pair of landfalls in Florida.
“We know that the sooner the Keys are able to welcome tourists back into their communities, the faster the Keys as a whole is going to be able to recover,” Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Cissy Proctor said.
“We want to do all we can to help the businesses there open back up so they can welcome those tourists,” Proctor added.
The storm disrupted businesses nearly statewide, even temporarily closing many Orlando attractions. Zoo Miami posted on Facebook that it will hold a post-storm grand reopening on Oct. 14.
Florida officials have not calculated the hurricane's potential economic impact on the tourism industry.
In the Keys, tourism accounts for more than 50 percent of the jobs and 60 percent of the money spent, totaling about $120 million a year in sales taxes for the state, according to Monroe County's Tourist Development Council.
Visit Florida, which latched onto Scott's Oct. 1 reopening goal, has rolled out a multimillion-dollar post-hurricane marketing plan that will include a component focused on the Keys “once our partners there have indicated they are ready to welcome visitors back.”
“We're going to do everything we can to get everybody to come down here,” Scott said. “We've already started that. On top of that we're going to do a lot more through Visit Florida. The Legislature gave us $76 million to market our state and we're going to put it to good use, especially right now. When people wonder, `Are we open for business?' We absolutely are open for business.”
News Service of Florida Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.