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Mike Pence in Orlando: Florida 'leading the way to open up America again’

But on a day when Walt Disney World partially restarted, state tourism outlook is bleak

ORLANDO — Vice President Mike Pence met with leaders of Florida’s tourism industry Wednesday in Orlando, and though nearby Walt Disney World welcomed some visitors for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic took siege, their outlook for the future of the state’s most vital economic engine was mixed.

Sitting alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis, Pence praised Florida’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and suggested the state’s approach to restarting business activity amid a public health crisis was a pacesetter for the rest of the nation.

"This state is really leading the way to open up America again,” Pence said.

DeSantis called Orlando “a bright spot” that would “launch our return.”

Despite welcoming millions of visitors a month, the region did not see the kind of deadly outbreak that many expected. Nevertheless, closures here paralyzed the local economy, which thrives on theme park traffic.

There was a notable sign of life Wednesday. The state’s biggest tourism draw, Walt Disney World, allowed customers at Disney Springs, a shopping and entertainment complex.

It was the first glimpse into how theme parks may operate in the near future. Guests wore masks, capacity was limited to allow social distancing and everyone had their temperature checked before entering.

Meanwhile, crosstown rival Universal Orlando will present its plans for a phased reopening to Orange County officials on Thursday. An executive for Sea World told Pence and DeSantis the park could open two to three weeks after receiving approval from Orange County and state officials on a reopen strategy, likely sometime in June.

"If people feel that we're safe and if people feel that we're doing it responsibly, they're going to come back,” John Sprouls, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Universal Parks & Resorts, said at Pence’s event.

But other businesses that don’t have the financial reserves of Disney or Universal warned of more hardship ahead if tourists don’t soon fill Central Florida’s vacant hotel rooms and empty attractions. One hotelier said short-term rentals are facing a debt crisis. Another executive told Pence that the motorcoach industry — vital for shuttling Orlando tourists from the airport to hotels, the convention center and theme parks — might not make it through the year without financial assistance.

Profits in the Florida tourism industry dropped 83% in mid-April, according to a study by Destinations Florida, the statewide association that serves local tourism promotion organizations. Almost half of these businesses said they laid off employees, and the average business let go of 73 percent of its staff.

Harris Rosen, president of Rosen Hotels and Resorts, said governments should soon stop restricting people and let businesses prove they can keep customers safe.

"If they are sloppy and people enter the establishment and they are concerned, they will not patronize the business,” Rosen said. “Isn’t that what free enterprise is all about?”

While the room burst into applause for Rosen, who hosted the 90-minute round table at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort, public opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of a phased approach to reopening that’s guided by public health experts, according to multiple state and national surveys.

Pence’s trip to Central Florida conveniently placed him in the middle of the country’s largest swing state amid the most unprecedented election year in modern history. Neither Pence nor his boss, President Donald Trump, have campaigned much since the coronavirus outbreak shut down the country. DeSantis said Trump, who he called “the big guy,” would be in the state later this month to witness the historic NASA/SpaceX rocket launch.

After landing in Orlando, Pence and DeSantis dropped off protective equipment for workers at an upscale complex for seniors. Later, the two grabbed burgers at a local restaurant. Neither wore masks, though DeSantis has urged Floridians to wear protective face coverings while out in public.

DeSantis and Pence also huddled with business leaders after the roundtable, where six-foot social distancing norms were often violated. When Rosen tried to shake Pence’s hand, the vice president offered an elbow bump instead. Rosen laughed and slapped Pence on the shoulder as he walked by.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo called Pence’s swing through Florida “a show.”

“We need real solutions on health care and unemployment, not a couple boxes of PPE signed by the VP and self-congratulatory remarks at a roundtable,” Rizzo said.

Pence will go back to Washington, D.C. with some suggestions on how the administration could help Florida’s tourism businesses.

For example, a representative for the convention and visitor bureaus urged the White House to make their members eligible for future small business loans. Roger Dow with the U.S. Travel Association said the administration should encourage Americans to boost local economies and businesses by traveling only in the United States once the pandemic allows for it.

"Explore America — no Americans go to Italy, no Americans go to Spain,” Dow said. That would certainly help Orlando, where nine in 10 visitors are domestic travelers.

Carol Dover, the president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, urged Pence to give businesses protection from lawsuits if customers or employees get sick.

“I will tell you we're in discussion about that right now,” Pence said.

Dover asked for help defeating a state ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 in Florida.

"There will be nothing more catastrophic to an industry that's already been hit as hard as we hit,” Dover said.

The remark drew an immediate rebuke from Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who is behind the constitutional amendment.

“@CarolBDover is wrong!” Morgan tweeted. “What is catastrophic to the restaurant industry is her $620K a year salary. Those chumps are getting hosed. They don’t make that. Not even close. Fire Carol Dover, she makes 3 times what @VP Pence makes. Suckers!!”

Times staff writer Sharon Wynne Kennedy contributed to this report.

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