ST. PETE BEACH — Sheri Haupert and her family have been vacationing in Pass-a-Grille this week — cautiously vacationing, that is.
When she flew in from Iowa with her daughter and grandchildren, they were equipped with hand wipes, sanitizer and face coverings. They’re also staying in their vacation home, rather than a hotel or Airbnb. They’ve only gone to one restaurant and sat outside. They send just one facemask-wearing adult to the grocery store.
They’re not alone. Pinellas County and its beaches and motels are starting to fill back up despite the pandemic, as snowbirds arrive and staycationers start venturing back outside.
They had to cancel their March trip, said Haupert, a 59-year-old retired educator. But they decided to visit in June because airfares were low and the grandkids’ summer activities were cancelled.
The Iowa family is an example of who is helping the tourism industry rebound from the devastation of COVID-19. Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the Pinellas tourism agency, had to halt its tourist surveys because of the pandemic, said CEO and president Steve Hayes. But conversations with partners have revealed a shift in who is visiting and spending money these days.
There are the staycationers, Tampa Bay and Florida residents who aren’t traveling elsewhere this summer. There are tourists taking advantage of low prices to stay longer, often in vacation rentals. There are those on a tight budget taking advantage of lower airfares and hotel rates to turn day-trips into overnight stays. And the low prices are spurring some to visit the Pinellas beaches for the first time.
But one important group is missing.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Hayes said. “I think the one thing that we’re not hearing that we would hear around this time of year is international (travelers.)”
The coronavirus caused a 42 percent drop in Pinellas hotel occupancy rates from May 31 to June 6, according to data compiled by industry analyst STR, Inc., compared to a similar time period in 2019.
The current occupancy rate for that time period was just 42 percent.
Keystone Motel operations manager Danielle Micklitsch said she’s still fielding phone calls from out-of-state travelers deciding to reschedule trips because of the pandemic. Tourists who planned to spend Fourth of July in Florida are pushing reservations until next year, she said.
“But when we have a cancellation it won’t take long for it to be filled by a staycationer,” she said.
Those staycationers are making up a growing proportion of current bookings, said local hotel owners.
The family-run hotel is running at about 50 to 70 percent occupancy. Micklitsch said the demand is there to fill more rooms. But the hotel is choosing not to book more rooms so guests can maintain social distancing.
Micklitsch said the hotel has been able to maintain the same room rates — about $130 a night, she said — which they would usually charge this time of year.
Castle Hotel owner Bob Ruhlman said most of their visitors have been locals. They’ve had wedding parties cancel and have had to cancel some large groups. But he said the hotel is actually seeing a slight increase in guests in June compared to this time last summer.
“With the precautions we were taking on a daily basis … I felt comfortable with any guest coming in,” he said.
Snowbirds still in season
Local businesses are noticing a shift in visitors, too.
Galene Shorter has run her quirky St. Pete Beach gift shop a short walk from the beach for the last decade. But since reopening Galene’s Paradise about a month ago, she said she’s had days that almost feel normal with a steady stream of shoppers. Other days, though, are painfully slow.
Living at the beach through the pandemic has been like living in an episode of the “Twilight Zone,” Shorter said. But it’s also had its silver linings. She’s noticed a number of snowbirds who usually stay up north in the summer have returned to their winter homes to wait out the pandemic at the beach.
“There’s houses that are almost always dark, I suddenly saw the lights go on,” she said, “families out sitting on porches.”
Stephen Christianson, general manager of the Brass Monkey restaurant, said he’s heard from visitors who planned to stay from January to March, but decided to extend their vacations to avoid traveling during the pandemic.
Paradise Sweets owner Adam Janecek said he’s interacted with fewer out-of-state and international visitors at his candy shop. Still, his St. Pete Beach business has recently seen hundreds of customers as Florida continues to reopen.
“It’s kind of a little back to normal,” he said.
The shop doesn’t have indoor seating right now, and Janecek said he’s gone through thousands of pairs of gloves as he strives to maintain hygienic practices during the pandemic.
On Thursday, Richard Singh of Orlando decided to take a day trip to Pass-a-Grille beach with his wife and another couple. They set up a tent on the beach further away from crowds to maintain social distancing and picked a work day so there would be fewer people out.
However, not all beach-goers were practicing social-distancing on Thursday. Pass-a-Grille beach was nearly crowded, and most of them weren’t wearing masks.
Hayes says social distancing, hand-washing and other recommended safety practices to prevent the spread of the virus are key to revising the tourism industry.
“I think as long as we continue to let our guests know to vacation responsibly, I think our industry will come back,” he said. “But again, I think it’s going to be slow, it’s going to be responsible and it’s going to be deliberate.”
Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report.