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COVID-19 empties Tampa Bay hotels. What happens to their 150,000 employees?

The beaches are closed and the local tourism industry has been hit hard. One tourism group projects 40 percent of travel workers could lose their job in coming months.
The Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa, right, is seen along Clearwater Beach Thursday, March 19. Hotel occupancy has fallen off 24 to 53 percent nationwide. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
The Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa, right, is seen along Clearwater Beach Thursday, March 19. Hotel occupancy has fallen off 24 to 53 percent nationwide. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

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TREASURE ISLAND — Now that the beach outside the Bilmar Beach Resort is closed, general manager Clyde Smith isn’t sure how long he can keep his entire staff of 150 working.

In a letter to the county, Smith pleaded to allow resort access to the beach while restricting the general public. A compromise, he hoped, would keep COVID-19 from spreading without having to lay off up to half his staff. He was already staring down a week with just 30 percent of 164 rooms filled. At one point, nearly every one was booked for spring break.

“My employees are worried," Smith said.

”The hard part is even when, and hopefully soon, the virus curves, what is the economic impact going to be?" he said. “Who is going to have money to still travel?”

The beaches closed Friday and Smith’s already meager numbers are likely to plummet for the weekend on. The vacation cancellations began rolling in as cases of the coronavirus began to appear in the United State and Florida. They came just just as spring break was supposed to send throngs of high school and college students to Pinellas County beaches and the Bilmar.

“We’ve waived cancellation fees,” Smith said. “But we just hope some will come.”

Tampa events such the NCAA men’s basketball championship games and Wrestlemania, expected economic boons, were all canceled. It has left hoteliers and tourism businesses throughout Tampa Bay navigating a public health crisis while trying to stave off layoffs as long as possible.

More than 1.2 million Floridians work in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, local tourism bureaus estimate more than 150,000 people are employed by the hospitality industry. At least they were before the outbreak.

Tampa Bay tourism leaders say layoffs and furloughs have already begun, or are coming, as Tampa Bay hotels struggle through what was supposed to be peak tourism season. Two massive luxury hotels in Chicago have shut down. Monroe County has moved to close all of its hotels, shuttering Key West’s tourism industry starting Sunday.

Hotel occupancy nationwide was down between 24 and 53 percent in the second week of March, according to hotel data from industry expert STR, Inc. In Tampa Bay last week, rates were down about 17 percent. Occupancy rates for the rest of the month will likely take a nosedive.

“There is no precedent,” said Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Steven Hayes. “Whatever we have experienced, it’s not this."

Jan Freitag, STR’s senior senior vice president of lodging insights, analyzed the occupancy trends COVID-19 caused already in Italy and China. He said the latest U.S. numbers aren’t even close to the bottom. He has been asked to predict the timeline of decline and just how long the industry could take to bounce back, but those questions don’t have answers.

Related: Tampa Bay loves to buy local, but can small businesses survive COVID-19?

As of Friday, 10 Floridians have died and the state had more than 500 confirmed coronavirus cases. Experts say the actual number of infected is likely muchgreater and discourage non-essential travel and gathering in groups.

Tourism leaders have described the sudden loss in business as almost surreal. The only comparison they can grasp onto is the two-month period following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But even then, locals were still inside restaurants while tourists avoided the airlines. Businesses were having regional conferences, filling some hotel rooms. Bob Morrison, the head of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association, said many Hillsborough County hotels that rely on conferences and conventions don’t have a single group booked for the rest of March and April.

The U.S. Travel Association predicts the economic fallout in the tourism industry will be six times what it was following the Sept. 11 attacks. The association also projects 40 percent of tourism workers will lose their jobs in the coming months.

“If we were able to define the length and depths of the challenges before us, that would make planning much easier,” Morrison said. “We don’t have that benefit. We’re very much planning in the dark.”

Smith, a veteran in the hotel business for the last 40 years, did what he could: He moved staff meetings inside the hotel’s ballroom so employees could sit several feet apart. Guests stood 10 feet from the front counter before it was their turn to check in. Pens were sanitized after every use — so were credit card readers and room keys. Cleaning teams scrubbed down each suite after visitors left. The cleaning workers only came back in on request. Guests had mostly asked for cleaning supplies to keep rooms sanitized themselves.

Beach goers are seen along Clearwater Beach Thursday, March 19. All Pinellas County public beaches will close Friday. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Smith said on Treasure Island — unlike the now-viral scenes at a crowded Clearwater Beach earlier this week — people self-regulated by staying in small groups, far apart. One man even drew a large circle around his towel to keep others away. Ultimately, county officials deemed the health risks were still too severe. The beaches will be closed for at least the next two weeks, another blow to already struggling tourism-tied businesses.

Tampa Bay’s tourism industry has not only been reliable, but growing, the last several years. New hotels are nearing completion of their construction, ready to serve what had been a growing demand. Morrison said hotels that intended to start hiring staff will now have to wait out the virus to begin the hunt. New hotels slated to open in late summer and early fall could sit, unoccupied and unstaffed, for weeks or months.

“This idea of ‘when we return to normal,'" said Hayes, of the Pinellas tourism bureau, “well, I’d like to know what ‘normal’ is going to be. The travel and tourism industry is very resilient — 9/11, the oil spill, the recession, we bounce back. The question is how quickly and in what form.”

Tampa Bay’s tourism leaders are trying to guide hotels and other businesses to low-interest loans and government aid to make payroll. The industry at large is calling on congress to create a fund to keep workers employed and travel businesses open.

“The good news is because we have worked so hard to build Tampa Bay’s platform," Morrison said, “we have got a shot of more rapid recovery than most.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct gender of Jan Freitag.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

STORES REACT TO VIRUS: Some businesses adjust hours or announce temporary closings.

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

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

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