Jennifer Boychuk and her husband own The Mint Fox Cookies and Ice Cream shop on Clearwater Beach, and they are excited to welcome the spring break crowd this year.
They’ve hired three part-time staffers and are switching to their summer schedule, keeping their doors open another two or three hours a day.
Almost all of their customers have been wearing masks to help prevent spread of the coronavirus, Boychuk said. But scenes of the maskless crowds in Tampa celebrating the Super Bowl and those in the regularly packed bars next door have her wondering and worrying.
“I am scared that if there’s an uptick in cases and our hospitals fill up, they could shut us down again,” Boychuk said.
Tourism businesses have struggled mightily during the pandemic. Last year’s spring break — normally their most lucrative time of year — was interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent business shutdowns and beach restrictions. They are hoping for a better season in 2021.
Spring breakers are, indeed, on the way to Tampa Bay, according to local flight and hotel booking estimates. And last week, Tripadvisor named St. Pete Beach the best in the nation, which tourism officials believe may draw even more interest.
Local officials say they are banking on tourists abiding by safety guidelines to prevent a superspreader event. Pinellas County requires people to wear masks in indoor public spaces, and businesses can enforce that, but there are no individual penalties for not doing so.
Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, said he is hopeful, but not optimistic that revelers will wear masks and socially distance.
“The best we can do is try and reinforce good behaviors,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of this is out of our control.”
Tampa International Airport anticipates as many as 60,000 passengers in and out on peak days in March and April, a spokeswoman said Thursday, about twice the daily average in January and February.
Last year, spring break air traffic started strong in early March, but dropped to fewer than 3,000 to 5,000 daily passengers by April.
Projections are harder to make this year, according to travel officials, because tourists are booking at the last minute as they weigh coronavirus concerns. And they’re more able to change their minds, given generous pandemic cancellation policies by airlines and hotels.
Business appears to be booming this month for the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, as well. It has 855 flights scheduled for March, up from 734 flights in 2020, and 784 flights in 2019.
The airport even added a new route from Fargo, North Dakota, just in time for spring break, a spokeswoman said.
Mainsail Lodging and Development, which owns two beachfront hotels on Anna Maria Island and one in Dunedin, is selling out for spring break weekends, according to president Joe Collier. Even midday bookings are picking up, he said.
“I do think that beach hotels are going to see a tremendous amount of activity this year. They’re already seeing it on the books,” Collier said.
Alden Suites hotel at St. Pete Beach is more than 80 percent filled for March, said Tony Satterfield, vice president of operations.
“Demand has been much stronger than we anticipated, and we’re very happy with it,” Satterfield said.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Pinellas County’s tourism agency, hopes to have at least 60 percent hotel occupancy in March, according to Steve Hayes, the group’s president and chief executive. The week ending Feb. 20 ran at 71 percent occupancy, up from 52 percent in January, he said.
In March 2019, occupancy was at 89 percent. In March 2020, it was at 53 percent, due to beach closures and a statewide shutdown, Hayes said.
March and April are the county’s biggest months for collecting tourism development taxes. Pinellas collected about $16.2 million in March and April 2019, according to Hayes, but only $5.4 million in March and April 2020.
Hayes and local hoteliers are hoping that tourists with a pent up desire to travel will turn this year’s spring break into a financial boon. They’re also counting on people using masks, socially distancing and washing their hands to help keep festivities safe.
“We’re appealing to people’s wish to keep their families and themselves safe,” Hayes said, but adding, “I don’t think there’s any community in the country that can guarantee everyone will follow safety guidelines.”
To encourage good behavior, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has launched the “Rise to Shine” program, allowing people to sign an online pledge to follow safety guidelines and entering them into a drawing for a paid vacation, including roundtrip airfare, a 4-night hotel stay and a luxury private cabana. As of Thursday, more than 18,640 people had signed up, Hayes said.
His agency also will be handing out $25 gift cards for use at local businesses to people they catch following the health care guidelines.
“We want to go through and make sure that we are letting them know what expectations there are when coming here in terms of making them feel safe,” Hayes said.
Pinellas County will work with businesses, but does not intend to be the mask police, said county spokesman David Connor, and it has no plans to close beaches or businesses.
Salemi at USF offers a reminder: Florida is on the downside of a post-holiday coronavirus surge, but always at risk of another outbreak.
The state has seen a 47 percent decrease in COVID-19 cases in the past four weeks, he said. And hospitalizations are down about 40 percent, which also helps account for fewer deaths.
The difference now is that vaccinations will protect the most vulnerable populations, Salemi said, so even if spring break leads to more people with the virus, it hopefully won’t lead to another jump in deaths. However, a new outbreak could cause the virus to mutate, he said, which could jeopardize the effectiveness of vaccines.
He is encouraged by business efforts to incentivize good behavior during spring break, saying it’s a more effective strategy than criticizing bad behavior. He recognizes the financial needs of local businesses and the rights of college students to celebrate, but he urges caution.
“We are not in the clear just because we have this vaccine rollout,” he said. “There are still so many vulnerable in our communities.”
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