Starved of international visitors, the house once inhabited by writer Ernest Hemingway in the Florida Keys has struggled to stay open. Almost all of its staff have been laid off during the coronavirus pandemic, yet the six-toed cats who live there still attract locals to the site.
After the author’s death in 1961, his home was converted into one of the leading tourist attractions in Key West, which is closer to Havana than to Miami, and where margaritas, diving, and sunbathing are a way of life.
Its residents have survived ferocious hurricanes and economic downturns in the past, but nothing had prepared them for the collapse in tourism brought on by the pandemic.
Foreign tourists have been unable to visit because of closed borders and no cruise ships have docked since March. That leaves only domestic tourism, but even that is down because of the coronavirus raging in Florida.
That has led to 30 of the museum’s 45 employees being laid off in the past week.
“I had over 10 guides. Now, I have four," said the site’s director, Andrew Morawski.
Those who remain split the work between them because the house remains open, offering guided tours and attending the large colony of six-toed cats that are descended from the feline with the genetic oddity that was given to Hemingway as a present decades ago.
“We plan on staying open," said Morawski, “especially making sure that all these cats get taken care of."
It is no small task either: local tourists who still make it to Key West are more interested in the mutant cats than in the lifestyle of the author of the “Old Man and the Sea."
Hemingway, who won the Nobel Literature prize in 1954, is “not being as taught as much, especially here in the United States, as much as he used to be" said the museum director.
For that reason, “the cats seem to be a little bit more of the draw," he said.
The heat in Key West is relentless. The face masks of visitors are streaked with sweat as the guide recounts stories of the writer and his wife Pauline, while another museum worker pours ice into the cats’ water bowls.
“Aww, how cute," said the tourists.
Key West is the last of the Florida Keys, a chain of coral reef islands that stretch 110 miles (175 kilometers) off the southern tip of the state and are connected by 42 bridges.
Country singer Jimmy Buffett dedicated his song “Margaritaville" to the chilled-out place, now a mecca for water sports lined with beach houses and with mailboxes shaped like manatees or flamingos.
In the late afternoons, a few tourists gather on a square to watch the sunset.
“It was so busy you could hardly walk through the crowd, and now there’s nobody here," said Jack Reichenbach, a 67-year-old local who lost his job during the pandemic and who is trying to sell some watercolors of the sea view.
“Everything is pretty bad," he said.
For the first time in years, tourists do not have to elbow their way through the throng or line up to have their snapshot taken in front of the buoy marking the southernmost point of the mainland United States.
Among those waiting for the sun to go down was New Yorker Carol D, 65, a frequent visitor to Key West who asked an AFP reporter what sites she had visited.
When the reporter replied “Hemingway house", Carol noted she did not know that place but said enthusiastically: “You gotta see the cat house!"
“They’re amazing," she said.