CLEARWATER BEACH — The Rakaczewski family came with many of the classic Florida spring break essentials: beach towels and sandals, swimsuits and a sun hat.
But there were other essentials in their beach bag that marked a distinctly pandemic-era vacation. In a bucket of seashells was a bottle of sanitizing spray. Instead of just sunglasses, they also wore cloth masks.
Last year, the Rakaczewskis planned to visit Disney World. Frank and Maggie Rakaczewski counted down the days until vacation with their then 5-year-old daughter, Clementine, using a paper chain to mark the days until spring break. But when they had just three loops left on the chain, everything closed down due to the pandemic. The Pennsylvania family had to cancel their vacation.
This year, they decided to skip the theme parks in favor of a safer vacation and chose Clearwater, as it seemed like a quieter beach with social distancing precautions. They wanted to show their daughter the Sunshine State.
“We did not want to deny her Florida again,” said Maggie Rakaczewski, 39. They drove from their Philadelphia suburb to avoid flying on a plane, and researched to find a hotel that spaced out the time between guests in its rooms.
While the family planned their vacation with precautions in mind — and Frank Rakaczewski, who is 40, has been vaccinated — public health experts nationwide worry that not all vacationers will be as cautious. They have raised concerns about possible outbreaks tied to spring break travel specifically in Florida, with visitors gathering in crowded bars and relaxing their social distancing precautions as they let loose after a winter of lockdowns.
The state has been in the national spotlight, as other parts of the country await the impact of Florida’s influx of visitors, with pandemic restrictions more lax than many other parts of the country. The New York Times highlighted Florida’s ongoing lack of social distancing restrictions, and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert criticized the state as spring break vacationers booked their beach trips.
Much like the winter holidays, public health experts have also expressed concerns that the gathering of spring vacationers could lead to more COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Public gatherings tend to be risky for spread,” said Dr. Allison Messina, chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
While the pandemic may have cut short last year’s spring break festivities, Florida has seen a rebound in tourism this year. Young, maskless visitors filling bars and beaches in South Florida have raised concerns about virus spread. Locally, officials have also reported an upswing in visitors and Clearwater Police recently detained an 18-year-old man after a fight broke out on Clearwater Beach, surrounded by a large crowd.
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Airports and tourism leaders are also noticing an increase in visitors.
Tampa International Airport spokesperson Emily Nipps said the airport saw almost 59,000 passengers Saturday and nearly 58,000 travelers Sunday. In 2019, and before lockdowns began in 2020, the airport averaged about 75,000 to 80,000 passengers a day during the spring break period.
This weekend, the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport screened 6,976 departing passengers, compared with 8,362 passengers during the second full weekend of March in 2020. In 2019, the airport saw 8,153 departing passengers during the same time period.
President and CEO of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Steve Hayes, said the area is drawing more staycationers from around the Tampa Bay area and Orlando, but out of town visitors are beginning to return. Pinellas County hotel occupancy rates for the week ending March 6 were at about 72.1 percent, compared to 82.7 percent this time last year, according to data from hospitality industry analyst STR.
“We’re starting to see some of those traditional markets come back. But again, it’s not at the level that we were in 2019 which is a record breaking year,” he said.
Spring breakers stretched out on towels and under cabanas spaced further apart than in previous years on Clearwater Beach Tuesday. Some were local high schoolers, sunbathing or tossing a football on their break from school. Others were families and young adults from northern states seeking a sun-filled vacation.
Morgan Gose, 22, and Jathan White, 21, came to Florida to visit Gose’s parents, who recently moved here. Attending Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., the couple planned to relax on the beach and sight-see in Tampa Bay.
A few months ago, Gose said the pandemic would have had more of an impact on what activities she feels comfortable doing. Now, she said, she’s not as worried.
“People didn’t get as scared,” she said. “Everyone’s kind of used to it.”
Still, Gose said she would be concerned about sharing a crowded elevator. And she noticed fewer mask wearers in Florida compared to Missouri.
About four years ago, the Brown family made their first big vacation to Florida and they wanted to make the trip again this year. So Jason and Jody Brown drove two days from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with their four children. Staying at a resort near Orlando, they visited SeaWorld and came to the Tampa Bay area to check out Busch Gardens and Clearwater Beach.
Besides the parks, most parts of Florida seemed to be more “relaxed” about pandemic restrictions than their home state, Jason Brown said. The couple said they were comfortable with most activities but continued to take precautions such as wearing their masks indoors and keeping their distance from others. Jason Brown said he also felt that being outdoors gave them some protection.
“I believe in God’s good earth and the air. I think this is a filter in my opinion,” he said.
Last year, pictures of local crowded beaches led to widespread outrage nationwide, and officials voted to close Pinellas County beaches for two weeks in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. While congestion on the beaches can lead to some risks, public health experts said the lure of the beach isn’t their top concern.
“Outside is safer than inside,” said Jay Wolfson a health policy expert with the University of South Florida. “The beaches are pretty safe.”
Instead, he’s more worried about what people are doing indoors. Walking along St. Pete Beach with his wife on Monday, he noticed crowded beachside bars full of maskless young people and cars with license plates from across the country — New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin among them. Wolfson said he’s particularly concerned about younger spring breakers, who tend to be asymptomatic and socialize with others outside their group.
“Our rates in Florida need to be monitored very carefully,” he said.
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