MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The Florida Keys will welcome back visitors as early as this weekend as the area continues to rebuild after Hurricane Irma.
The Keys will officially open as early as Sunday – nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. The are was set to reopen originally on October 20th.
The reopening is due to a major need to support businesses in the area that rely mostly on tourism – their number one industry.
“I have 85 employees, 85 families depending on us. I have to move forward,” said Peter Althuis, co-owner of Snapper’s Key Largo.
Althuis says businesses reopening is what everyone in the Keys needs right now.
“It is not only important for the money, important for locals. It is kind of a relief. Here we are. We are together. We made it,” he said.
Despite the reopening, the area is still recovering more than two weeks after the eye of the storm blew through parts of the Florida Keys.
“We know we have a long way to go before the Keys fully recover,” said Monroe County Mayor George Neugent in a statement. “But because tourism is our top economic engine and many of our residents’ livelihoods depend on it, we also know that we need to begin asking visitors to return.”
Almost all power and water has been restored from Key Largo through Marathon as well as throughout Stock Island and Key West.
Cellphone service is working “well” but cable and internet restoration is lagging, according to county officials.
Bridges on Overseas Highway passed inspections and damages on roadbeds have been repaired. Hospitals in the Upper Keys and Key West have also reopened.
Key West International Airport and Florida Keys Marathon International Airport have reopened and resumed commercial flights.
If you’re planning on heading to the Florida Keys, you should call ahead to make sure specific hotels and attractions are open.
While heading there, county officials ask that you stay off side roads to avoid “hindering restoration activities.”
Monroe County’s $2.7 billion tourism industry accounts for about 54 percent of county’s jobs and 60 percent of spending in the area, according to the Tourist Development Council.
According to the News Service of Florida, the announcement also came as Florida Governor Rick Scott directed 400 members of the Florida National Guard to help with debris removal in Monroe County. The state and local governments have struggled with contractors and subcontractors on debris removal.
Hurricane Irma made initial landfall Sept. 10th at Cudjoe Key, less than 30 miles northeast of Key West. It then made a second landfall in Collier County before traveling up the peninsula.
“If we have another hurricane, if all that debris is out there, that’s going to be dangerous,” Scott said after meeting with Monroe County officials on Monday. “That’s going to be dangerous for people, but it’s also going to be dangerous for our buildings and especially for our power systems. And we’re a tourist state. One of every six jobs in the state is tied to tourism, so we have to get the debris up.”
Nighttime curfews remain in place from Islamorada to Marathon and for the Big Pine Key area to just north of Shark Key.
Most state parks in Monroe County remained closed Monday. The Florida Park Service said San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park in Islamorada and the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail are open for day use.
Dry Tortugas National Park, a cluster of seven islands almost 70 miles west of Key West, reopened Monday. However, ferry operation from Key West isn’t expected to be available until Oct. 28.
The state’s tourism-marketing agency, Visit Florida, which latched onto Scott’s Oct. 1st goal, has rolled out a $4 million to $5 million post-hurricane marketing plan that will include a component focused on the Keys “once our partners there have indicated they are ready to welcome visitors back.”
“I think that’s both to help the Keys and the rest of the state as well,” Scott said Monday of the marketing plan.
The state, which before Irma was on pace to top last year’s 113 million visitors, has not calculated the hurricane’s potential economic impact on the tourism industry.
(The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner also contributed to this report.)