A couple of players wore masks on the airplane. But 21 members of the Lake Erie College women’s soccer team from Painesville, Ohio, still descended on Cocoa Beach for spring break amid gloomy news headlines on the new coronavirus.
In an annual spring break migration, thousands of tourists and college students are flocking to Minutemen Causeway. The Ohio soccer squad sunbathed on the sand Tuesday a bit north of Beach Shack, laying out amid dozens of colorful umbrellas and hundreds of fellow beach-goers.
But will the threat of the coronavirus derail the Space Coast’s booming tourist season?
“I was a bit apprehensive. Obviously, I would be able to fight the coronavirus — but if I gave it to my grandma?” asked Juliet Tyma, a sophomore forward.
The Space Coast’s spring break season lasts through Easter weekend, generally speaking. Amid increasing COVID-19 cases across Florida, Port Canaveral cruise ship travel advisories and the roiling stock market, “we’re in a brave new world right here,” said Michael Slotkin, a Florida Institute of Technology professor of economics.
Fiscal impact: Brevard’s typical overnight visitor spends $ 125 to $ 150 per day, Slotkin said.
“Multiply that by whatever the level of cessation of traffic is going to be — which nobody knows. Nobody knows how this is going to play out. This is organic. It’s changing almost on a day-to-day basis,” Slotkin said.
“I have a granddaughter that may be considering a cruise in the next couple of weeks. And we really have to go back and forth on whether she’s going to take it or not. Because if she’s on a ship and somebody comes down with it, what happens? You’re quarantined at that point in time,” he said.
“So what happens for all of us as individuals, just mock that up on an aggregate scale,” he said.
More: Coronavirus Florida: Here’s the latest of what you need to know as you head out the door
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The good news: Brevard is hitting spring break on a tourism high. Brevard County’s 5% Tourist Development Tax collections on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals rocketed up 19.4% year-over-year in January, the most recent data available.
That’s not an anomaly. Tourist tax collections from the first four months of snowbird season:
October: $ 1.12 million, up 16.1% from $ 962,000 last October
November: $ 1.15 million, up 16.5% from $ 983,000 last November
December: $ 1.26 million, up 12.7% from $ 1.12 million last December
January: $ 1.52 million, up 19.4% from $ 1.27 million last January
“We’ve been having a great year so far, and tourism has continued to be strong. Now we’re entering into our big season. Spring break, and then summer following, are some of our biggest months ahead of us,” Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Peter Cranis said.
“Right now, what we’re seeing for March and early April is continued strength. Not hearing much about anything negative in terms of cancellations or softening in reservations. That’s a good sign,” Cranis said.
The Florida Institute of Technology and University of Central Florida are on spring break this week. And the beach forecast is picture-perfect: Expect mostly sunny skies through Monday with highs ranging from 79 to 82 degrees, the National Weather Service reports.
Eastern Florida State College goes on spring break next week.
“With Spring Break approaching, UCF encourages travelers to be mindful of COVID-19’s potential impact on their plans. Destinations with large, confined groups of people pose a higher risk of transmission,” UCF officials warned on the university’s coronovirus website.
In an email to the Florida Tech community last week, President T. Dwayne McCay said alternative spring break trips to Puerto Rico and Peru remained scheduled.
The Lake Erie College Storm played a morning soccer match against Rollins College, then took vans from ChampionsGate to Cocoa Beach. Spring break trip planning and fundraising started in August, Head Coach Reni Lawrence said.
“We just have been really taking a lot of precautions. Obviously, hand-washing after everything — especially because we play soccer,” said Leah Pollifrone, a junior defender.
Pollifrone works as a state-tested nurse aide at an Ohio nursing home, and she just received an email announcing workplace restrictions on visitors under age 17.
Tyma’s boyfriend flew home to Spain for spring break to attend his cousin’s wedding, and she said it’s unclear whether he will be permitted to leave the country — “that’s scary,” she said.
Slotkin said it remains to be seen how Space Coast tourists will react to the coronavirus threat. Some air travelers may drive instead to avoid possible delays. For some visitors, it could be too late to cancel travel plans. And, since Florida Tech students hail from more than 100 countries, some may stay in town during spring break rather than traveling abroad
“I honestly won’t know the answer to what happened until I see bed tax data through the ensuing months,” Slotkin said.
“Kids have a certain attitude that they’re going to live forever. They’re immune from any harm, because you’re young and you’re healthy — and you haven’t lived long enough to know the flip side of that,” he said.
“Most of the people that worry about (the coronovirus) are older people, and people with preexisting health conditions. So it may be that, within the tourism segment that we have, it may be people that are a bit older that may be more cautious in their plans,” he said.
Mike Morrison, who has tended bar at Beach Shack since 1989, seconds that opinion. He and his wife scheduled a Royal Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas in mid-April from Port Canaveral, but they haven’t decided whether to go.
“They’re saying it’s going to affect all of us. I’m curious about the young spring breakers,” Morrison said, handing cans of LandShark and Yuengling to thirsty customers.
“They’re ‘young and tough.’ And I don’t see it slowing down,” he said.
The largest share of Brevard’s tourist tax, 47%, is spent promoting and advertising the Space Coast as a tourist destination. Last week, the Brevard County Commission voted to potentially steer some tax revenues for Indian River Lagoon restoration projects and road-bridge repair work. County engineers have identified a 306-mile backlog of roads that need repaved or reconstructed.
In Orlando, Walt Disney World Resort advises guests that coronavirus precautions include training for cast members, frequent cleaning and disinfection cycles of targeted areas, and easy access to hand sanitizer dispensers and hand-washing facilities.
Universal Orlando Resort officials report staffers are “enhancing our already aggressive cleaning protocols” at hotels, CityWalk, rides and attractions, restaurants and dining areas, and other locations.
“I spent a lot of my tourism career in Orlando. We had Zika, H1N1, swine flu, bird flu, all of the above. As long as there weren’t a lot of local effects, we really didn’t see a huge tourism effect,” Cranis said.
“We were probably more affected by hurricanes than anything related to illnesses like this,” he said.
Rick Neale is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or email@example.com. Twitter: @RickNeale1. To subscribe: https://cm.floridatoday.com/specialoffer/
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