The Florida Keys will officially welcome back visitors as early as Sunday, nearly three weeks ahead of its original schedule.
The reopening is largely based on a need to support local businesses that rely heavily on tourism, the region’s No. 1 industry. And it meets Gov. Rick Scott’s ambitious deadline for the Keys, also set for Sunday.
“We know we have a long way to go before the Keys fully recover,” Monroe County Mayor George Neugent said in a statement. “But because tourism is our top economic engine and many of our residents’ livelihoods depend on it, we also know that we need to begin asking visitors to return.”
In Monroe County, tourism is a $2.7 billion industry, accounting for 60 percent of all spending and 54 percent of jobs, according to the county’s Tourist Development Council.
Last week, the region had pegged its reopening to tourists for Oct. 20. But while multiple hotels had already reopened and some attractions were spared and still online, other parts of Keys remain severely damaged and unable to welcome visitors. Still, Keys officials decided to move up the reopening date shortly before a meeting between Scott and Monroe County officials in Marathon on Monday.
The decision to reopen, Keys officials said in a release, was largely due to the completion of the most immediate infrastructure repairs needed in the region after Hurricane Irma battered the island chain on Sept. 10.
By Monday, water and power had been restored to nearly every location from Key Largo through Marathon, as well as Stock Island and Key West. Cellular service was working well, but restoration of Comcast cable television and internet was still lagging behind other utilities.
Bridges on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway have been inspected and are open for travel. Key West International Airport has resumed commercial service, and Florida Keys Marathon International is welcoming general aviation and charter flights again. Hospitals in the Upper Keys and Key West have also reopened.
The Port of Key West started welcoming cruise ships back Sunday, with the arrival of Royal Caribbean International’s Empress of the Seas. Those disembarking in Key West Sunday found an area still in the midst of recovery that was quiet, but with some businesses open again and eager to welcome back customers.
While some events have been postponed or canceled, Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, set for Oct. 18-22, Marathon’s Stone Crab Eating Contest scheduled Oct. 21 and Key West’s Fantasy Fest slated for Oct. 20-29 will take place as planned.
But travelers venturing back to the Keys should do so with caution. Recovery efforts are ongoing, especially in the Lower Keys and parts of Marathon that were hardest hit. Motorists are urged to be careful when navigating those areas and stay off side roads to avoid hindering restorations efforts.
Not all lodging, including RV resorts and other tourism facilities, are operating on a normal schedule. Visitors are encouraged to call attractions and hotels before traveling to ensure they are open. Several hotels in the region are accommodating displaced residents under a Federal Emergency Management Agency program, or housing first responders.
Expect to see large debris piles throughout the Keys.