FLORIDA KEYS — The Florida Keys officially reopened to visitors Sunday, three weeks after Hurricane Irma impacted the island chain Sept. 10.
Local officials chose the reopening date based on the speedy completion of significant infrastructure repairs, almost total restoration of utilities, and necessity of resuming the tourism-driven economy that employs about 50 percent of the Keys workforce.
“By welcoming visitors to the destination, it will provide the jobs and the hope that our residents are looking for so they can begin to rebuild their lives,” said Stacey Mitchell, director of marketing for the Florida Keys tourism council.
While Key Largo and Key West were least affected by Irma, a number of lodging properties and other tourism facilities in the Keys haven’t yet resumed normal operations. Recovery efforts are ongoing, especially in the Lower Keys and parts of Marathon that were hardest hit by the storm.
“It’s been a road of recovery and continues to be so, but we’ve made enough progress where the infrastructure is ready to accept visitors,” said Mitchell. “By the visitor coming down, they’re helping in the recovery and being part of that process.”
Visitors will find the Key West and Marathon airports open as usual, and the Port of Key West hosting cruise ships again. The Florida Keys Overseas Highway has passed inspection and is easily drivable throughout the 125-mile island chain.
Even Key West’s Southernmost Point marker, an iconic photo stop that designates the continental United States’ southernmost land mass, is being repainted after damage from Irma.
A number of Keys special events scheduled for mid to late October — including Key West’s Fantasy Fest, Marathon’s Stone Crab Eating Contest and Key Largo’s Humphrey Bogart Film Festival — are to take place as planned, according to organizers.