‘We’re all in denial.’ With eye on COVID, Key West looks at Fantasy Fest on calendar

Key West’s annual Fantasy Fest, a 10-day spectacle that brings parades, parties and crowds of body-painted tourists to the small island, is still on the calendar.

The events start on Oct. 22 and run through Halloween. But can the city safely pull off its largest attraction while COVID-19 cases are surging in Florida and the Keys?

The Key West City Commission meets Wednesday, Sept. 1, with plans to listen to the people before making any decisions.

“We’ve all got to come up with ideas,” Mayor Teri Johnston said on Friday. “Don’t come here just complaining, or demanding we need to have certain things a certain way. Come with solutions.”

Participants partake in the 2017 Fantasy Fest parade as they make their way down Duval Street in Key West on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017.

In a town where tourism pays the bills, people are on edge with Fantasy Fest still on the calendar.

Some fear it will be canceled, leading to losses of income. Others fear the impact of tens of thousands of visitors during a surge of new COVID-19 cases.

August has been the worst month in the pandemic for Monroe County, with 1,751 new cases reported so far, according to Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com calculations of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been, but you walk down the street, you might see a few people in masks,” said Dr. Mark Whiteside, medical director of the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County. “I think we’re all in denial.”

Monroe reported 376 new resident cases in the week ending Aug. 26, according to Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com calculations of state data. That was down from the 487 new resident cases reported the week before.

“We’re at a spot we have never been in,” Johnston said. “We shut down on numbers that were far, far better than what we’re seeing right now. But we’ve got the vaccination. We have other methods to protect our citizens.”

Fantasy Fest organizers are urging revelers only come to Key West if they’re fully vaccinated and to stay home if they have symptoms. Those who attend should bring masks and hand sanitizer, they said.

“All festival goers should be fully vaccinated or have a negative COVID test within 72 hours of attending the festival,” the event’s website states.

Fantasy Fest should go on as planned, said Mark Rossi, a former city commissioner who owns a complex of bars on Duval Street.

“You can’t run from the disease, you know,” Rossi said. “If you’re not vaccinated, don’t go.”

The Lower Keys Fluffers’ 2016 Fantasy Fest float, ‘Weekend at Bernie’s,’ won Best in Creativity at the parade.

The Lower Keys Fluffers’ 2016 Fantasy Fest float, ‘Weekend at Bernie’s,’ won Best in Creativity at the parade.

No king or queen this year

Fantasy Fest, along with the name and logo, legally belongs to the Tourist Development Association, a nonprofit with its own board of directors. The TDA awards the contract to a firm to produce the event. Since 2017, that job has gone to We’ve Got the Keys, an event-planning and marketing company led by Nadene Grossman Orr.

“It’s not my decision to make,” Grossman Orr said Friday about Fantasy Fest, after a part of this year’s celebration was called off.

On Friday afternoon, the annual “Royal Campaign of Fantasy Fest,” was canceled, just hours before the kickoff event was set to start at Sunset Pier. It’s a fundraiser for the nonprofit A.H. Monroe, formerly called AIDS Help, which provides housing, healthcare referrals and other services for people living with HIV.

Every year, locals compete to become king and queen of Fantasy Fest by hosting fundraising events. The ones who collect the most money take the crowns.

But it just can’t happen this year, A.H. Monroe’s board of directors decided, citing the surge of COVID-19 cases in the Keys and “the inability to enforce masking and/or vaccination.”

“It is essential that we first protect the well-being of our neighbors, friends and supporters in the Keys,” said Christopher Elwell, board president.

“Our king and queen candidates are, of course, disappointed, but they are supportive of our sensitivity to the recent surge of COVID infection in Monroe County,” said the nonprofit’s executive director, Scott Pridgen.

Dr. John Norris, a Key West physician who has become the face of the local healthcare front lines, on Friday received 10 doses of the monoclonal antibody treatment REGEN-COV by Regeneron, a treatment for people sick with COVID-19 and considered to be high risk for severe illness or death.

“The best thing I can hope for is everybody gets vaccinated and we gear up with Regeneron to make certain our population does not have to hit our hospital, emergency room or, God forbid, the ICU,” Norris said.

Lower Keys Medical Center, the only hospital in Key West, has 167 beds, including 10 in ICU, at two campuses. On Aug. 20, the hospital changed its surge status to yellow from green for the first time in the pandemic, meaning it needs more nurses and ventilators, Norris said.

A hospital spokeswoman said yellow also means there are still beds available for patients.

“Resources are limited all over,” Norris said. “If places like Miami and Jacksonville can be overwhelmed and Miami is our backup, you’ve got to be concerned.