The Equator Resort
Key West’s LGBTQ business struggled, but survived. Now they’re ready to welcome you back
The pandemic sadly struck a death knell for many legacy LGBTQ businesses around the country. But fear not Key West fans: The island’s small gay-owned hotels, bars and restaurants struggled over the last year, but they survived and are poised to welcome visitors back, better than ever.
Key West entrepreneur Joe Schroeder owns the gay Bourbon Street Pub and 801 Bourbon Bar complexes as well as the 15-unit gay guesthouse, New Orleans House. He used a mandated three-month closure of hotels in March 2020 to renovate all of his hotel rooms, getting rid of carpet in the rooms and replacing it with wood and other materials that would make it easier to disinfect after a guest leaves.
Schroeder and other bar owners were eventually allowed to offer takeout service, then indoor service with food. Now bars can operate at full capacity with indoor and outdoor seating but with six feet of social distance between parties.
New Orleans House hosts the New Year’s Eve shoe drop, made world famous by CNN’s live coverage of the event featuring the drag queen Sushi being lowered to Duval Street in a giant ruby-red stiletto at midnight. This past New Year’s Eve a 10 p.m. curfew meant that Schroeder had a smaller shoe-lowering event in the Garden Bar.
“Key West is one of the safest places you can be,” said the businessman, adding that the island’s weather means you can both dine and experience nightlife outdoors.
“When people feel safe to travel they will be coming here to a very safe destination because the community and our local government have really pulled out all the stops,” echoed Kevin Theriault, executive director of the Key West Business Guild. He added that the city of Key West has set stricter standards than its county, requiring everyone to wear masks in public.
Police patrol on foot on the city’s main drag, Duval Street, regularly stopping anyone not wearing a mask and reminding them of the mask mandate. Virtually every store and business in the city has a sign advising clients to mask-up.
“Small island tiny hospital,” reads a sign in front of a restaurant, emphasizing the importance of staying masked.
The Key West Business Guild maintains a tourist information storefront on Duval Street, where you can get a copy of Isolated Island — The Key West COVID-19 Spring of 2020 way, a photo book chronicling the pandemic’s impact on the island. Profits from book sales go to Sister Season Fund, a charity that helps service industry workers and helps prevent homelessness.
The consensus among business owners is that once the pandemic is over, tourism will return with a vengeance: “We’re looking at 2021 as being a great year,” said Laura Zequeira, the longtime manager of the upscale LGBT-mixed 17-room Alexander’s Guesthouse “Right now we are just treading water. But 2021 could be our best year yet.”
Alexander’s is directly across the street from the world-renowned gay male resort, Island House, where longtime manager Paul Murray said Island House also used the three-month closure to make some improvements, including constructing a new steam room and sprucing up the rooms. The 39-room Island House also includes a restaurant and bar, dry sauna, fitness center, indoor and outdoor hot tubs and a large pool.
Murray also expects a busy 2021. He noted that many guests postponed rather than cancel their existing reservations. And the resort is open for day passes.
The gay male resort Equator is just down the street and is another gay Key West favorite. The 34-room guesthouse is a combination of five historic properties, and each building and hotel room has its own unique charm. The resort continued its free expanded continental breakfast but rebranded it as grab-and-go service to encourage guests to social distance while eating. Given the quality of this top-notch resort, it won’t have any trouble attracting travelers back when the pandemic ends. The resort deservedly ranks
No. 1 in TripAdvisor.com’s ranking of 40 speciality lodging hotels in Key West.
All the island’s gay bars and hotels are in the Old Town section of Key West, the southern part of the island where most of the tourist attractions are, including the Hemmingway House, Mallory Square and the Southernmost Point Buoy. By the way, during the 2020 coronavirus closures, the landmark buoy that marks the southernmost point of the continental U.S. was cordoned off and covered in plastic to deter tourists, but it is open now with signs on the sidewalk asking people to social distance.
The Aqua, Back Bar and Sidebar are all just steps from the Bourbon Bar complexes. The Back Bar is an outdoor bar that was a big asset during the pandemic restrictions.
The locals’ gay dive bar, Bobby’s Monkey Bar, is the place to be to mix it up more with locals. A mural on the side of the bar depicts the Conch Rebellion in 1982, when Key
West briefly — and mostly facetiously — declared itself a separate country from the U.S.
Key West’s longtime gay sailing tour company, the Blue Q, was able to weather the pandemic and restarted its sailing tours last fall, with modifications including changes to food service to improve safety for employees and guests. Blue Q offers clothing-optional sails on its catamaran, and summer month offerings include sandbar excursions which can more easily accommodate social distancing guidelines.
Gay author Tennessee Williams has a museum dedicated to him in Old Town. It is open to visitors by appointment and for private tours and is expected to return to full schedule when the pandemic ends. It is a must-stop for any LGBTQ traveler to Key West.
Key West’s public mask mandate will go away this summer. On May 3, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning COVID-19 restrictions throughout the state effective July 1. That law will not apply to any rules for masking that individual businesses may mandate.
United Extends Houston–Key West Daily Nonstop Service through Labor Day Weekend
As of May 6 United Airlines is extending its daily nonstop service between Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Key West International Airport (EYW) through the Labor Day holiday.
The Houston–Key West service, on United’s Embraer E175 aircraft, offers seating for 70 passengers, with 58 main and 12 first-class seats. Launched Dec. 17, the service was scheduled to run through May 5 and is now extended through Sept. 7.
“Houston is a popular origin city for Texas visitors who want to experience the Florida Keys,” said Richard Strickland, director of airports for the Florida Keys & Key West.
American Airlines also has daily Texas nonstop service between Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and EYW.
United also offers nonstop daily service to Key West from Washington Dulles (IAD), Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and New Jersey’s Newark Liberty (EWR) international airports.
For more information visit United Airlines at united.com or call 800-864-8331, or visit Key West International Airport at eyw.com or call 305-809-5200.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
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