Florida beaches bracing for tourism impacts

As families and college students across the country begin to flock to Florida for their annual spring break trips over the next several days and weeks, local officials are monitoring the spread of the coronavirus, but still expecting a strong spring break and tourism season.

Vigilance became especially important in the Florida Panhandle just as spring break was getting underway, when Santa Rosa County — home to the popular beach destination Navarre Beach — announced it had the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in the area.

“We’re working with emergency management, and they’re keeping us up to date on everything,” said Navarre Beach Fire Rescue Chief Danny Fureigh.

The fire chief added that officials aren’t planning on canceling any events, but will be closely monitoring the situation. The affected individual is an elderly man in his 70s who is currently hospitalized in Pensacola, located in neighboring Escambia County.

In Pensacola Beach, there are no plans to cancel any events, including the popular Bands on the Beach outdoor concert series, which starts April 7.

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Visit Pensacola’s interim CEO Jack Brown said Pensacola Beach spring breakers primarily drive to the area, as opposed to flying.

“We are keeping an eye on the local situation,” Brown said. “It is a topic of discussion, and we are trying to make sure that we’re on top of the situation and following what’s going on nationally, regionally and within the community.”

In Panama City Beach, another popular spring break destination, the mood about the strength of this season is “cautiously optimistic.”

Several colleges across the U.S., such as Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, have issued advisories for students planning to travel internationally during spring break.

“If you are planning to leave campus for spring break, we again strongly encourage you to reconsider any nonessential personal international travel, particularly to areas that are experiencing outbreaks of COVID-19,” an advisory on Duke’s website read.

Still, the spread of the virus did not appear to dampen the spring break plans of several college students this week.

“Spring break, shell yeah!” one South Carolina girl posted on Instagram Thursday from Destin. Okaloosa County officials said this week that spring breakers coming to the area shouldn’t worry.

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In Volusia County, Bike Week, an annual 10-day event that officially opened on Friday in Daytona Beach, was on track. The event is expected to draw between 400,000-500,000 motorcycle enthusiasts to the region, which includes Volusia and Flagler counties.

“Everything is moving ahead with the greatest of care in the forefront,” said Janet Kersey, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, the organization that presents the event. Kersey aded that businesses are working closely with health professionals to make sure the environment is clean.

But Scott Edwards, manager at Daytona Beach Welcome Center, said he hasn’t received a single call from students concerned about coronavirus. Edwards’ company has booked spring break students into local hotels for decades.

Phillip Griffitts, chairman of the Bay County Commission and member of the Panama City Beach Tourist Development Council, said there’s a concern that the coronavirus could have a negative impact on tourism in Panama City Beach, an area that’s still recovering from 2018’s Category 5 storm, Hurricane Michael.

In the event of an outbreak, or a drop in tourism linked to the virus, the city is prepared to “go dark,” Griffitts said, which would mean either marketing to smaller audiences, reaching out to only families or cutting the month’s advertising budget completely.

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Air travel cutbacks

Several major airlines have reduced service in response to the growing threat of coronavirus.

United Airlines on Wednesday sent a letter to employees saying that in April, it would reduce its international schedule by 20% and its domestic schedule by 10%. Similar reductions are planned for May, the airline said, and JetBlue is reducing its own schedule by 5%, according to news reports.

The International Air Transport Association said this week that the virus outbreak could cost airlines across the world as much as $113 billion in revenue, or a 19% loss.

A more conservative estimate with a more limited spread of the disease could result in a $63 billion loss, according to the association.

But Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport hasn’t seen any service changes, Senior Vice President and COO Mark Stuckey said.

“We are hoping this is just a temporary situation and the airlines will adjust schedules accordingly. But for now we’re waiting to hear from airlines to see if schedule changes are made,” Stuckey said.

Allegiant Air is the sole carrier at Punta Gorda Airport, and the largest carrier at Sarasota-Bradenton International. Sonya Padgett, a spokeswoman for Allegiant, said that the domestic-only airline’s service has not been affected by coronavirus.

“We are in constant contact with the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/TSA and the Department of Transportation, and they have made no recommendations for domestic airlines to alter service at this time. All of our flights are nonstop, and our customers are leisure travelers who are flying from their hometowns to a U.S. vacation destination,” Padgett said in a statement.“ Allegiant passengers aren’t connecting from airlines that fly internationally.”

Kaley Miller, marketing and communications manager at Punta Gorda Airport, said that it’s business as usual at the Charlotte County airport.

Right now, flights at Sarasota-Bradenton still seem pretty full, Stuckey said. But it’s hard to say what the future holds, especially with some of the recent reductions airlines have made.

“From what we’re hearing form airlines, it’s future bookings that they’re having concerns with right now,” he said.

Virginia Haley, president of tourism bureau Visit Sarasota County, said Friday that since it’s the middle of the busy tourism season, trips are generally already booked. However, Visit Sarasota’s research company is in communication with hotels to see if there are any major cancellations. So far, there’s nothing to report, she said.

“With the previous SARS outbreak (in 2003), we never saw a big big drop off. So many Americans canceled international trips, and instead opted to vacation in us. Whatever dip may have happened in international travel was offset domestically,” Haley said. “That’s what we saw at that time. This is going to be different, but we’ll continue to very closely monitor it.”

Contributing: Jim Abbott, Annie Blanks, Nathan Cobb and Erin Franczak

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