Cruise ships just returned to Key West after the COVID shutdown. Are more coming?

·5 min read

Two cruise ships arrived in Key West over the weekend, ending a 20-month absence during the COVID-19 pandemic that brought the industry to a halt.

The Crystal Serenity docked Saturday morning at the privately owned Pier B at the Opal Key West Resort and Marina. The smaller Azamara Quest arrived at the nearby city-owned Mallory Pier.

The return marked a milestone in Key West, where the relationship between cruise ships and local people is complicated.

Key West voters last year approved three referendums to restrict ships by size and capacity. That vote, however, was canceled by legislation signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in June.

“This is what we voted against,” said Stuart Strickland of Key West, at Pier B viewing the Crystal Serenity. “Today is not going to be a huge impact as far as the number of people, but it’s just the beginning.”

Key West residents and business owners continue to argue over the environmental impact of the ships and whether the local economy needs the influx of passengers. City commissioners are awaiting proposed ordinances written by municipal administrators that keep in place the cruise traffic limits approved by voters.

The ships that arrived in the Southernmost City weren’t full. The Crystal Serenity, which can hold a little more than 1,000 passengers, had 476 people aboard. The Azamara Quest held 435 on a ship that can carry about 680, according to Caribe Nautical Services, which schedules and assists cruise ships at the Key West’s port piers.

The two ships had approval from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S Coast Guard, and COVID protocols were “strictly adhered to” on both, said John Wells, founder of Caribe Nautical.

Both ships left Key West by 5:30 p.m. Saturday, said Doug Bradshaw, Key West’s port and marine services director.

At Pier B, several businesses, including the Opal, sent their employees at the pier to hold signs that welcomed back the passengers to the tourism-dependent island, which has been regularly filled with visitors this year despite the lengthy suspension of cruise ships.

Two cruise ships arrived in Key West on Nov. 27, 2021, marking the return of cruise ships to the island since March 2020, when cruising came to a sudden halt at the start of the pandemic.
Two cruise ships arrived in Key West on Nov. 27, 2021, marking the return of cruise ships to the island since March 2020, when cruising came to a sudden halt at the start of the pandemic.

Three people across the street from Opal protested the cruise ship arrival. Anyone who showed up with signs protesting cruise ships in Key West was not allowed on the resort’s property unless they got rid of the signs — or in one woman’s case, a button depicting the logo of the group Safer, Cleaner Ships. That’s the group that led the successful campaign to put limits on cruising in Key West, including capping the number of people who disembark daily to 1,500, and banning the largest ships.

On Saturday, only the Azamara Quest, which docked at the city-owned pier, matched the restrictions that a majority of Key West voters wanted.

The Azamara Quest arrived in Key West on Nov. 28, 2021, marking the return of cruise ships to the island since March 2020, when cruising came to a sudden halt at the start of the pandemic.
The Azamara Quest arrived in Key West on Nov. 28, 2021, marking the return of cruise ships to the island since March 2020, when cruising came to a sudden halt at the start of the pandemic.

“That is the kind of ship that we’ve been saying Key West has the market for,” said Evan Haskell, an organizer with Safer, Cleaner Ships. “We are happy they were the first vessel to call on Key West.”

Some celebrated the return of cruising to Key West.

Talia Allman, who works at Wyland Gallery on Duval Street, stood on Pier B with three co-workers, all dispatched by their employer to greet cruise ship passengers.

“We’re excited for their business,” said Allman, 32, who moved to Key West six months ago. “It brings in money for the community and all the small businesses here.”

The Crystal Serenity arrived in Key West on Nov. 28, 2021, marking the return of cruise ships to the island since March 2020, when cruising came to a sudden halt at the start of the pandemic.
The Crystal Serenity arrived in Key West on Nov. 28, 2021, marking the return of cruise ships to the island since March 2020, when cruising came to a sudden halt at the start of the pandemic.

Laura DiBella, executive director of the Florida Harbor Pilots Association said on Twitter: “Florida’s economy is made whole again. Thanks for returning.”

How many cruise ships are headed to Key West? It’s a mystery at the moment. Key West’s cruise ship calendar isn’t being publicly shared by Caribe Nautical because of “security concerns,” Wells said.

Even the city doesn’t have access, according to Bradshaw. The city owns the Mallory Pier and leases the Outer Mole Pier from the Navy. Pier B is owned by the Walsh family. Mark Walsh is the owner of Pier B Development Corp.

“We do not have what has been confirmed for December or the coming months,” Bradshaw said in an email. “They have told us no ships are scheduled for Outer Mole or Mallory but will not provide info for Pier B.”

In the past, the cruise ship calendar has been posted on the city’s website.

Wells said the limited access to the plans is due to “numerous threats of violence and even terrorism against ships and passengers” posted on Facebook pages that include the one that belongs to Safer, Cleaner Ships, along with private pages.

“I do not want to assist them in planning their malign acts,” Wells said in an email to FLKeysNews.com/Miami Herald. “We do have a number of ships scheduled for December and January and beyond, but for the time being I am keeping that information limited to those who have a need to know.”

Key West police had no watch reports of cruise ship-related threats from the weekend, said spokeswoman Alyson Crean.

The ships on Saturday weren’t technically the first to dock in Key West since the pandemic started. In October, Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas was allowed in because an 81-year-old man was having a medical emergency onboard. He was taken to Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West.

The Coast Guard said the decision to bring the ship to shore was made to save the man’s life.