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Coronavirus killed Florida’s peak season and we’ll have to grapple with the aftermath

The weather may be perfect, but does it even feel like spring in Tampa Bay with nothing going on?

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All the telltales of spring are here: the air is thick with pollen, the humidity low, the evenings cool and inviting. But boats from Hubbard’s Marina are docked at John’s Pass, instead of buzzing tourists out to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the spring breakers never came.

Few are picnicking at Curtis Hixon Park, and those who are sit six 6 feet apart. Water taxis are not cruising along the Tampa Riverwalk, and restaurants are not seating people outside because they’re not seating anyone. Traffic is not backed up past the Howard Frankland hump.

Spring is what makes Florida work. It’s when residents revel in the perfect weather and visitors crowd our businesses and our beaches, pay our sales taxes and fund our state and local governments. Employers depend on spring to make enough money to fill their accounts before the slow season. Residents rely on spring to remind them why they live in this state before the swamp of summer clings to them like plastic wrap.

“It could not have come at a worse time to Florida,” said former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “Over the last two years, we really just emerged out of the wreckage of the Great Recession.”

Coronavirus has stalled the world. And in Florida, the measures taken to slow its deadly spread ended Tampa Bay’s peak season before it could peak.

Open businesses and people were scarce at John's Pass Village on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Madeira Beach. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

It took the city of Tampa a decade to recover from the net $500 million loss in tax dollars from the housing market crash that fueled the Great Recession, Buckhorn said. Plummeting home values pulled property taxes down with them, where they stayed for years.

Buckhorn wonders what kind of budgets Tampa Bay’s mayors will even be able to present come July and August, given the tax losses already in just a couple of weeks from COVID-19 restrictions. The state’s sales tax is getting hit especially hard, as nonessential retail closes and shoppers become more conservative.

The businesses that helped Tampa Bay crawl back from the recession to become a leading destination packed with craft beer breweries and food halls are feeling the brunt of the virus’ economic effects. The hotels that consistently brought in record-breaking bed tax dollars have laid off staff, closed or have all-time low occupancy.

At Tampa International Airport, only 5,000 people are departing from the airport each day. It’s usually eight to 10 times that number during spring break season.

On Monday, Dylan Hubbard told his staff of 77 at Hubbard’s Marina in John’s Pass they wouldn’t be coming back to work for at least the next two weeks to run pleasure cruises and fishing charters. Some cried. More than half live paycheck to paycheck. But Hubbard was worried about his own family’s health, about getting his 7-month-old sick. He knew his employees were carrying the same pressures and fears from jobs that required interacting with people.

Even now, Hubbard is self-isolating from his wife and son just in case.

“We have never seen anything like this," Hubbard said. “We have never closed like this.”

Hubbard’s Marina opened in 1928, then serving just fisherman with seven kayaks and 14 cane fishing poles. The businesses weathered war and recession, recent visitor dips caused by Red Tide and hurricane scares. But COVID-19′s hit has been brutal. March revenue is down more than $284,000, Hubbard said. More than 4,200 people have canceled bookings into May.

Like any businesses, Hubbard’s can’t survive several months without customers and March and April’s usual surge is supposed to help bulk up his coffers through winter. But right now, John’s Pass is eerily quiet. The boardwalk is like a scene out of Zombieland, Hubbard said. The people who have stayed wander aimlessly.

A handful of people visit the boardwalk at John's Pass, where only a few businesses remain open due to the coronavirus pandemic, on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Madeira Beach. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Troy Manthey looks at the weather forecast and sees seven beautiful days ahead. Then the operator of StarShip Cruises and Pirate Water Taxi turns to the dock and sees all his boats tied up.

“There’s something really heartbreaking about that,” he said.

At the onset of the outbreak, Manthey debuted a new 100-seat air-conditioned water taxi. He never had the chance to run it at full capacity before closing the businesses. Once directives came out limiting groups to no more than 10 people, there was no point in trying to continue.

The Weedon Island Preserve’s groves are not crowded with international tourists or college spring breakers. The day before the Pinellas County stay-at-home order went into effect, the preserve’s kayaking businesses weren’t launching many paddlers into the water. The boats were heavily sanitized and touring groups, if they decided to come at all, were small and distant from each other.

Now, the cultural center is closed. A dig site called shell mound is devoid of the usual student excavators because the University of South Florida has moved classes online.

Zachary Hamm, who runs kayak tours with business Ecomersion, said he’s usually packed this time of year. But business has dropped as much as 80 percent.

Sweetwater Kayak manager Tim Grimes said his team is used to seeing 30 to 50 people each weekday. Even before the stay-at-home order, it was down to no more than eight to 12. Grimes still saw some hikers, the occasional solo fisherman. But minus the ideal weather, you’d never know it was springtime.

Whatever slow build business there is in coming months, many companies that rely on tourists anticipate they’ll have to shift to depend more on locals.

Business owners worry about who will even have money to spend. In Florida, the number of people filing for unemployment hit 74,000 last week, nearly double the previous record in 2009 during the Great Recession.

Rental kayaks at Sweetwater Kayaks where business is slow due to the coronavirus pandemic, at Weedon Island Preserve on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Manthey laid off 90 percent of his staff and cut pay for the rest. He suspects it will be easier to build back business on the water taxis, but his dinner cruises will probably take more time. Weddings are at least rebooking for the fall, though some clients have pushed events off until next year.

“There’s not a playbook for this,” Manthey said. “The only peace that you can take away from this is that everyone is going through this together. You’re not alone.”

It’s easy to beat yourself up, he said. He never expected a virtual lockdown of the economy, a freeze on tourism when it’s supposed to be booming. But he was the one to tell his employees, people he looks to more as family, that their paychecks would stop.

“It wasn’t caused by you,” he reminds himself. “When you understand everyone else is going through it, it helps you digest it.”

But it’s still a tough reality to swallow.

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