Could coronavirus in Florida hurt spring break travel? Officials aren’t worried yet.

Two days after confirmation of the virus in Hillsborough County, tourism agencies haven’t seen many signs that travelers will stay away.
Beachgoers on Clearwater Beach during spring break. [Times (2013)]
Beachgoers on Clearwater Beach during spring break. [Times (2013)] [ Tampa Bay Times (2013) ]
Published March 3, 2020|Updated March 3, 2020

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Tampa Bay’s tourism industry reported record-breaking numbers during its peak season last year, thanks in part to the spring breakers who flood the area every March. Last spring, officials predicted the first quarter of 2020 would be much the same, and though major attractions like Gasparilla and baseball spring training are back, one unforeseen event has coincided with the return of spring breakers: the emergence of coronavirus in Florida.

State officials confirmed three cases of the virus by Tuesday afternoon, including two women who have been quarantined in Hillsborough County. Some people took to Twitter with worries that the virus’ spread would halt their spring break plans, or that spring breakers would bring the virus with them.

But local tourism officials said that, while they’re staying watchful, they haven’t seen much to indicate that the presence of coronavirus will slow down a busy tourism season.

“I’ve heard of some small group cancellations,” said Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada, though he didn’t have specifics about those groups. “We’ve seen this with other situations like this before, whether it was Zika or SARS or the bird flu. Some people are very, very risk-averse.”

He’s been mostly encouraged by the numbers he’s seen, though, which he said included record hotel stays in Hillsborough County throughout January and February. He added that he’ll have more up-to-date numbers later this week, which will bring him closer to an full picture of how coronavirus is affecting tourism, if at all.

Leroy Bridges, a spokesman for Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, said it’s too early to tell whether the virus’ emergence in Florida will deter spring break travelers.

“We haven’t heard from our hotels that it is affecting the everyday leisure traveler," he said in an email. "We will be participating in several calls with local, state and national groups over the next two days and will hopefully have a better understanding of what it all means later in the week.”

Bridges also pointed toward a survey of 377 American travelers published by tourism industry publication Skift. Twelve percent of respondents to that survey said they’d canceled travel, but more than three-quarters of those trips involved international travel.

Even if the increasing number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. pushes the public to perceive it as a domestic travel issue in addition to an international one, the teens and 20-somethings who make up many spring break travelers may have reason to feel a bit safer in their travel. As the health-news site STAT reported Tuesday, numbers from the China Center for Disease Control showed that teens and 20-somethings only accounted for about 9 percent of Chinese cases confirmed by Feb. 11. And though the overall fatality rate in China was 2.3 percent, it was 0.2 percent in people ages 10 to 39.

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With some colleges and universities already on spring break and many others days or weeks away from those recesses, schools are also figuring out how best to deal with traveling students. Spokespeople for Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison both said their travel advice has focused on international travel, though they’ll be monitoring the domestic situation in the days ahead.

A spokeswoman for Miami University in Ohio said the university was directing students to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. Penn State University announced Tuesday that it’s forming 12 task forces focused on coronavirus, with Provost Nick Jones telling WPSU that managing the travel of thousands of students is difficult, so "what we are trying to prepare for is the return of those students.”

President Trump told reporters Tuesday that he’s not considering restricting travel within the U.S., though some airlines have started waiving change or cancellation fees for some flights. Corrada, the Visit Tampa Bay CEO, said canceling travel plans is a “personal decision,” but so far, he’s not worried.

“If I had to travel for business tomorrow, I’d do it," he said.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: What you need to know after Florida’s first positive coronavirus cases.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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