This year, the midnight drag queen arrives at 9 p.m.
Joe Schroeder, a bar owner in Key West, Fla., faced a dilemma.
For 23 years, his New Year’s Eve tradition in the southernmost city of the continental United States has drawn thousands of people from around the world who flock to see this tourist town’s version of New York City’s ball drop: a drag queen named Sushi, who descends from an eight-foot red stiletto at the stroke of midnight. But people were dying around the world, and to help stop the scourge locally, the city known for its alcohol-infused nightlife imposed a dreaded 10 p.m. curfew.
Hotel bookings throughout the city dropped by at least 10 percent. The party appeared doomed.
Looking to the comedian Red Skelton for wisdom, Mr. Schroeder moved the midnight celebration up by three hours.
“Just like it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, we say: ‘It’s midnight somewhere,'” Mr. Schroeder said. “It’s New Year’s somewhere in the world at 9 p.m. I think the Canary Islands.”
Actually, it’s the South Georgia and Sandwich Islands, a British territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
Much to the dismay of many would-be revelers, the shoe and its bedazzled occupant have been moved to the back of the Bourbon Street Pub, and the 9 p.m. shoe-drop will occur before a private ticket-paying audience of about 200 people.
Mr. Schroeder stressed that the head count will allow for plenty of social distancing, because the outdoor venue fits more than 1,000 people.
“Some people hate the idea, and some people love the idea,” said Gary Marion, 53, the female impersonator who headlines the spectacle every year. “I figure no matter what, there’s going to be people in town. There’s going to be drinking, whether it’s from 6 to 10 p.m., or at 2 a.m.”
Mr. Marion started working at the pub as a janitor in the 1990s. His job description grew to include sewing curtains and performing in drag. The first New Year’s Eve event featuring him as Sushi took place in 1997 and included unfriendly visits by the police and a city commissioner in her bathrobe, who was dragged out of bed to determine what the fuss was about.
Mr. Marion now runs a nightly drag queen cabaret across the street. He spent the pandemic sewing masks to help support the drag queens during the lockdown, when the bar was closed. It closed again for two weeks last month, when at least five of the 14 drag queens contracted the coronavirus, he said.
For New Year’s, Sushi will wear a 1920s Chinese ceremonial hand-embroidered gown, which Mr. Marion cut up and repurposed.
“The shoe must go on,” Mr. Schroeder said.