For 66 days this spring, life in Key West was a series of oddities and abnormalities. The pool at Dante’s, normally overflowing with a tangled mess of bronzed limbs and string bikinis, was devoid of its soggy spring breakers. The legendary sunset at Mallory Square descended on an empty plaza, no artists or tourists allowed to congregate to enjoy the beauty and peddle or purchase handmade wares. Bartenders and business owners suffered the staggering losses felt uniquely by a population disproportionately reliant on a seasonal tourism-based economy.
But for all the unnaturalness of the quiet streets and empty bars, it seemed like Key West had temporarily returned to nature. A flock of American redstarts, tinged with vibrant orange and yellow feathers, got waylaid by weather on their way to Cuba and took a two-week sojourn in Key West. They were everywhere, and if the volume of Facebook posts dedicated to the avian invasion was any indication, everyone who ventured outside couldn’t help but take note. Similarly, over the two months that we had the island to ourselves, locals marveled over how clear the water looked. Whether a result of the lack of boat and cruise ship traffic or just a bit of rosy-eyed optimism, it’s true — the ocean and gulf have never seemed so crystal clear.
But over the past 40-plus years, at least since the first Fantasy Fest in 1979 and the subsequent opening of the Mallory Square cruise ship port in 1984, tourists have been as much of the Key West landscape as the ubiquitous roosters and the water surrounding our shores. And those tourists are the lifeblood of our local economy; official Monroe County statistics from 2018 show that 5.1 million people visited the Florida Keys that year, spending just shy of $2.4 billion and supporting, directly or indirectly, approximately 44% of all the employees working in Monroe County. When you consider the sheer everywhereness of the strangers who constantly crowd our streets, and not just Duval, the absence of the masses for those 66 COVID-confined days was like a scene from a silent film about an abandoned ghost town at the end of a long, lightly trafficked road.
At least that’s what Miami-based TV producer and humanitarian Chris Sloan thought during his (non-touristic) visit to Key West during the shutdown. Timed to coincide with the June 1 lifting of the two COVID-19 checkpoints at the entrance to the Florida Keys, last week Sloan released a short film visually chronicling his experience of Key West’s isolation. The eight-minute mini-documentary, “Key West: 66 Days of Paradise, Interrupted,” gives viewers a rare and haunting insider’s look at the world-famous tourist hotspot as they’ve never seen it before, a surreal quiet pausing Key West’s bustling nightlife and prolific local music and art scene. It’s as if the quirky allure that made this tropical paradise home to such literary greats as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Judy Blume had settled in for a deep snooze … we’re still here, but don’t wake us until the pandemic’s danger has abated.
During the shutdown, access to the Florida Keys was limited strictly to locals and essential workers. Sloan shot the footage at the height of Key West’s quarantine in mid-May while he was on the island co-hosting a food drive with Pirate Radio on behalf of his nonprofit, Caleb and Calder Sloan’s Awesome Foundation, which is dedicated to doing good in an increasingly toxic world.
“Our foundation is really about giving, but also about teaching others the importance of giving,” Sloan says. “The foundation is named after my two sons, Caleb and Calder. My older son, Calder, was fatally electrocuted the week after his seventh birthday. When that happened, which is about the most horrible thing that can happen to a person, we felt that wanted my son to be immortal. We held people accountable for what they did, but instead of taking any of our settlement money and buying a car, our goal was to create and endow a long-term foundation. We wanted Calder’s name to be relevant forever and the foundation really embodies who he was. For most 7-year-olds, the world revolves around them, but Calder was very empathetic. He put other people above himself. That’s why we called him Mr. Awesome — hence the Awesome Foundation. And his younger brother, Caleb, is there to carry on the tradition. We always say that Calder plants ideas for how we can help people and we execute them.”
Though it was the most recent, the Awesome Foundation food drive was hardly Sloan’s first contact with Key West. “I’ve always loved Key West more than any other spot on Earth,” Sloan said. “In the wake of my son’s death, it was very hard to escape that malaise and that grief. My escape was I bought a car that had access to all these radio stations. I always wished I could transport myself to Key West, so I found (local Key West radio station) Pirate Radio. It took me away from the reality. It’s so local-oriented and involved with the community. I love listening to the DJs as much as the music.
“When COVID started, the first thing that hit me was that people in Key West had already been through so much, including Hurricane Irma. We were active helping through that and it was devastating. Living in paradise is difficult and expensive and we knew the impacts of the COVID shutdown were going to be catastrophic. Our heart went out to Key West. We always want to do as much as we can.”
So after his food drive duty was done, Sloan borrowed a bike from Pirate Radio host Jack Smith, got out his camera and cycled around the island, getting an intimate, unimpeded look at the place he loves so much. The film starts with Smith’s radio voice describing “another fabulous day in paradise” over a behind-the-wheel view of a stunningly sunny drive down US 1. Using a DJI Osmo with 1080p motion stabilization and hyperlapse, Sloan captured striking scenes of such quintessential Key West destinations as the Southernmost Point Buoy, Sloppy Joe’s, Mallory Square, Garrison Bight, Duval Street, the Ernest Hemingway Home, Pier House Resort and Higgs and Smathers beaches, all minus the throngs of visitors.
“Coming down there for the food drive, I wondered what it would be like,” Sloan said. “It’s eerie when you see it, it’s like a Stephen King novel. But at the same time, these places have never looked more pristine. They’re always populated with people, and now they’re more beautiful but more eerie and haunting because people are missing from them. I kept thinking how lucky the locals were to have this all to themselves. To me, it was like the forbidden fruit.”
The result of Sloan’s solitary expedition is a dramatic visual perspective: a strange, tranquil beauty in the near-overnight disappearance of tourism and yet one fraught with foreboding as the city’s chief economy vanished with it. While the unprecedented Florida Keys lockdown resulted in a much smaller number of COVID-19 cases and deaths than most counties, the area’s employment rate went from Florida’s lowest to the state’s second-highest in just a matter of months.
“Getting the opportunity to shoot behind the checkpoints, I knew I was capturing history, as the Keys had never experienced such a long and enduring shutdown, whether facing hurricanes, the Mariel Boatlift or even near abandonment during the Great Depression,” Sloan said. “When you read about Key West in the 1930s and during the Depression, the island was almost abandoned. The same thing happened when the military pulled out. I find it fascinating that the city always has these inflection points, and that it’s been through a fair amount of trauma for a place that’s so laid-back. But it also shows how resilient and hardy Key West is.
“This time, there were no boarded-up storefronts and signs like you’d see just before or after a storm. Instead, Key West looked absolutely pristine while in hibernation … just without the people. I wanted to create something that would be a historic record for people in the Keys to remember this time and for people in the outside world to see that, without humans, Key West is epically beautiful. As the world wakes up from this catastrophe, it’s more paradise than it ever was. This was something nobody had seen before and we hope nobody will see again.”
For Sloan, the project ended up being a deeply personal creation, as much an embodiment of his own appreciation for Key West as a gift to the people lucky enough to live there. “There were a lot of layers to this thing for me,” he said. “It’s my love letter to Key West. When you watch the video, there are places that are not the obvious. It’s not just Duval Street. But at the end of the day, when I was shooting, I wanted to make sure it was for locals first. I shot eight hours of footage and it was overwhelming trying to edit it. There are a lot of places that I wanted to hit and didn’t get to, things that would mean nothing unless you’re from there. I wanted to show Fausto’s, Mo’s and Dog 30 but I ran out of time, there’s so much there. I’ve never been to Key West and been so exhausted.”
But for all of the beauty, there is still a starkness to the footage Sloan shot. There are no tourists waiting in line to take selfies at Mile 0 sign on Whitehead Street, no barflies posted up at Irish Kevin’s, not a single soul strolling along the pier at the Truman Waterfront. “It was kind of heartbreaking going by places like Lucy’s which are never going to reopen,” Sloan said. “People are saying it’s like this around hurricane season, but typically with hurricanes things are shuttered up. As beautiful as it was, my overall feeling was that this looked more like an open casket — this beautiful place is not dead, but it’s lying in repose in this perfect pristine state. And in this case it’s coming back, that’s what makes it look so unique and different.”
At every turn, Key West showed up to give Sloan a hand. Pirate Radio’s Jack Smith loaned Sloan a bike, which he used to explore town and film. Trop rock legend Howard Livingston let him use his island anthem, “Livin’ on Key West Time,” for free as the background music. Random citizens gave Sloan ideas for places and people to film, from Dante’s to the infamous Cat Man of Mallory Square. “Blue Heaven is one of my favorite spots,” Sloan said. “It was closed, so I had to take a pole to put the camera in. It looked like an apocalypse back there; it was so empty.”
Yet, even though Sloan’s mini-doc chronicles measures for which the longterm impact was unknown at the time of filming, it also shares a message of upbeat optimism as the Florida Keys lockdowns are lifted. “Life returns, and Key West will rise again to be the quirky and charming melting pot that makes it truly one of my favorite places in the world,” Sloan said. “I want people to come back and I want people to see just what a multilayered, special place this is. It’s a lot more than rum runners and palm trees. This is my love letter to Key West and the resilient, pull-together spirit of its people, who will undoubtedly come back better than ever as they always have.”
The local response to “66 Days of Paradise, Interrupted” has already been positive and appreciative. “I sent the video to Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay and Key West Mayor Teri Johnston, both of whom wrote back and were really supportive,” Sloan said.
Sloan has made “Key West: 66 Days of Paradise, Interrupted” free and available to anyone who wishes to experience the beauty of paradise uninterruptedly. Watch and download the video at 66daysparadiseinterrupted.com/. And you can learn more about (and donate to) Caleb & Calder Sloan’s Awesome Foundation at https:// ccawesomefoundation.org/. ¦