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A Maritime issue on the ballot!

Actually, the maritime issue isn’t on our Newport News ballot… it is on the ballot of Key West, Florida. However, the future of cruise ships in the world of Covid-19 may be on the minds of many citizens of port cities that welcome them.

Cruise Ships Face the Voters

This week I was on vacation in the Florida Keys — our first outing since the pandemic struck! I was very excited and pleased to get away from work (which I LOVE!) and the non-stop election coverage (which I love rather less). So when we arrived in Key West, I was taken aback to see the intersection of both the elections and my maritime life on signs all over town! Here is one of them:

Advertising in favor of Key West ballot initiatives

There was also this ad in the local paper, but that’s another story:

A more common advertisement in Key West, generally speaking!

The issues

But back to the cruise ships. People in Key West are starting to think through 2 key problems as they pertain to these ships: the pandemic; and pollution. One one side are people who think that the city should limit the size of the ships (no larger than 1,300 total carrying capacity), the total number of people a day allowed to debark from them (no more than 1,500 total), and the “quality” of the ships (those which, according to the CDC, have the best environmental record). On the other side are business owners and supporters who do not favor any such limitations, and think that it is bad policy to make a tourist town seem unwelcoming to ocean-going tourism.

A local perspective

I found the number of signs, both for and against, pretty remarkable. So I asked a local whom I had met before what the issues were. These ballot questions would be, if passed, amendments to the Key West city charter after all. Understandably, pandemic fears were part of it. Cruise ships were really the first hot spots in this hemisphere. Smaller ships meant they could be sanitized more readily and would also debark fewer passengers into the city, which has 1 hospital and 7 ICU beds. And cleaner ships referred not just to the indoor accommodations. Ships have released, intentionally or unintentionally, pollutants into the ocean, though apparently not in the waters around the island. My acquaintance told me that in a matter of days after the ships ceased operation, the water had cleared substantially and he had seen fish swimming close inshore where they hadn’t been for some time. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? His reasoning may not be, well, water-tight.

Keep ‘Em Cruisin’!

Businesses are, of course, duly concerned how they will ever survive if Key West becomes less hospitable to the larger vessels (over 1,300 total capacity). Key West businesses have changed a lot since cruise ships started to dock regularly at the port. The economy is more dependent on them now than when I first went in the 1990s. I have no notion of how the city will vote. It is, indeed, a thorny issue! May they choose wisely!

Postscript: Nothing New Under the Sun

Two short observations about these topics that reminded me of our own collections. First, ocean liner cleanliness is not an unheard of problem for port cities. When SS United States was first built, her oil-fired steam engines were so dirty that the city of New York threatened to forbid her to dock there until Newport New Shipbuilding either modified or fixed them!

The choking smoke pours out of SS United States as she stand out from Newport News Shipbuilding. Photograph by A. Aubrey Bodine (from P011, Aubrey Bodine Photographs).
The black exhaust billows from behind United States in a near gale (from P0001.003, Photographs of Steamships).

Second, ships bringing epidemics with them into port is nothing new. However, for Key West in the 19th century, it was the ships that often steered clear of the city! In a letter we have from William Edward Roberts to his parents aboard the ironclad Miantonomoh on Aug. 20, 1898, he writes the following: “I will let you know what we are doing, we left Key West Friday at 4:30 and got here [the Dry Tortugas] yesterday morning, on account of the yellow fever in Key West….” See the catalog record and the letter here. Not just ships, but also cities, had to fly the yellow quarantine flag in times of land-based epidemic!

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