Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

With Florida Keys economy at a standstill from COVID-19, fishing guides worry about how to make a living

Will Benson, a fly-fishing guide, will face months of no income as the Keys’ economy goes dark. Photo by Michael Adno

By the time the first case of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was confirmed in Monroe County, Florida on Friday, life in Key West ground to a halt. Within the last two weeks, the slow drip of traffic down U.S. 1 vanished. The steady stream of cruise ships ceased. Bars closed. Hotels went dark as guests were ordered to leave. 

As a fly-fishing guide, Will Benson’s livelihood is bound up in that infrastructure. Clients have canceled trips for the season, and he has no sense of when he’ll be back on the water. He could lose tens of thousands of dollars in the coming weeks and months. Benson said more time with family, cooking around a campfire and jumping on the trampoline, is comforting, but the question of when clients will be able to reschedule their trips keeps him up at night. 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that it will be “impossible to make a living” for people in the fishing community and others who live and work throughout the island chain. 

Will Benson and his son fish in the backcountry of the Lower Keys last year. Photo by Michael Adno

U.S. health officials predict it will be at least two months until life returns to any semblance of normalcy. Without revenue streams at the height of their tourist season, the Florida Keys will have to reckon with an unprecedented loss of business. In 2018, tourists spent over $2.4 billion there, and nearly 30,000 jobs — half the workforce — are supported by tourism, amounting to nearly $1 billion in wages. 

In the past three years, several disasters stunted the Keys’ and other parts of Florida’s economy. In 2017, Hurricane Irma lashed the Keys as a Category 4 storm, causing an exodus of service workers; now, many workers travel from more affordable areas in south Miami. In 2018, a prolonged red tide, a harmful algal bloom, overtook much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, killing marine life, prompting beach closures, and preventing tourists from visiting the state. “We’ve been through this before,” Benson said, but “this one might prove the most difficult of all.” 

Most fishing guides in south Florida derive the lion’s share of their annual income from March until June. Andrew Tipler, the vice president of the Lower Keys Guides Association said most make money for four months, break even for four months, and then lose money for four months. Because the coronavirus pandemic is occurring during peak season, Tipler sees it as an unprecedented event — unlike hurricanes, which typically happen in their off-season. “Everybody is affected,” he said. 

On March 20, 500 coronavirus cases were confirmed in Florida. By Monday morning, that figure doubled; a week later, it exceeded 3,000, with 46 reported deaths. Pressure mounted for Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue a shelter-in-place order like a growing number of states and cities, especially after tourists flooded Florida beaches during spring break in early March.

A beach near Islamorada closed after Hurricane Irma lashed the Lower Keys in 2017.
Photo by Michael Adno

Some guides took voluntary precautions as news of confirmed cases spread. Fresh off a honeymoon in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Casey Lee made it home just as travel warnings were dispensed with increasing urgency and the first cases in Florida were confirmed. Lee began his career as a guide in the Florida Everglades just after Hurricane Irma, and then the red tide the following year cut into his days on the water. After those two years, he hoped this might be his first good one. Just as the migration of tarpon began in March, Lee’s calendar was booked — yet he felt he had a responsibility to his clients to cancel. Continuing to work “just didn’t seem quite right,” he said, adding that many of his clients are 60 and older. He thought to himself: “Do you want to make this money now or keep fishing those people for years?” 

Lee could stomach two months without work; he wouldn’t lose his boat or career. But if the pandemic continues, he isn’t sure. Shane Smith, another guide in the Keys, feared the uncertainty, too. Even with money set aside, he worried that he would be “out of house and home” in a year. It’s something many Keys residents are grappling with: Those unable to meet the high cost of living may have to leave, just as they did in the wake of Hurricane Irma. 

Despite the grim outlook, Smith said the community would look after each other, and remained hopeful. “The sun is coming up with or without us,” Smith said, “so we’ve got to figure out what to do when it comes up.”

Michael Adno writes for The New York Times and The Bitter Southerner, where he won a 2019 James Beard Award. He is based in Sarasota, Florida.