Will governor's Covid strategy hurt Florida's tourism recovery?

A masked waitress sanitizes a table at a Cracker Barrel Country Store restaurant in Crestview, Fla. Allowing inside dining is part of the reopening of Florida's economy promoted by Gov Ron DeSantis.
A masked waitress sanitizes a table at a Cracker Barrel Country Store restaurant in Crestview, Fla. Allowing inside dining is part of the reopening of Florida's economy promoted by Gov Ron DeSantis. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Early on in the battle against coronavirus, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed like a conscientious objector.

Rather than issue a statewide order closing all businesses deemed unessential and a corresponding stay-at-home mandate, as some other governors did, DeSantis opted for a more piecemeal approach that gave more latitude to local officials.

Opposition lawmakers and some health officials warned that this hands-off strategy would lead to a surge of virus cases that would overwhelm the health system. DeSantis belatedly issued a shutdown order on April 1 and is now claiming vindication, saying hospitalizations for coronavirus have been nowhere near what critics forecast.

One question for the state's tourism industry is whether DeSantis' early equivocation left potential visitors with the impression that Florida was willing to be risky with their health in order to keep state businesses afloat.

Of course, many businesses acted independently in advance of DeSantis to keep staff and visitors safe. The major theme parks, for example, closed their doors to guests in mid-March.

I spoke to two observers of the tourism industry about whether the DeSantis strategy would raise people's anxiety about returning to the state as it reopens, possibly prompting them to book a vacation someplace else this year or early next.

Stephen Holland, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida's Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management, thinks the state will be OK.

"In my opinion, the governor's timing and steps will be a nonissue in the big scheme of things. Potential travelers have many more things to consider, beside the 'inside baseball' of which governor did what when," Holland wrote in an email. Many may not be up on the details of what a governor from another state has been doing, he noted.

Holland said tourists have more current concerns.

"They will be interested in the 'current Covid situation' in Florida, how it compares with their resident home state, how desperate they are to travel [pent-up demand] and what 'new experiences' Florida has compared to their home area," such as beaches, rivers, boat trips, fishing, theme parks, rocket launches or camping.

Also, Holland said there is a group of libertarian-minded folks from states with strict stay-at-home protocols who want to go where they can and do what they want. "And if Florida is that place, then some will go for it," he said.

Another perspective comes from Democratic state Sen. Victor M. Torres Jr., the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Tourism.

Torres said that Florida is unlikely to lose tourists regardless of the governor's policy because there are no other great alternatives.  "The virus is everywhere globally, not just in Florida, so it is not an issue of avoiding one place to go to another one," Torres said.

What is important in order to give tourists an added sense of security is more testing capacity in the state, he added. "The testing is the biggest issue," Torres said.

In the short run, it is going to be a tough time for the tourism industry as it reopens under limits aimed at minimizing viral spread. Vacation rental homes once leased to foreign tourists are now more dependent on Floridians. "They're not going to make the money they're accustomed to," Torres said.

He said he wonders how theme parks will be able to maintain order and who will enforce tourist compliance with social distancing and other health-related requirements.

While not critical of the governor, Torres clearly wants a long yellow flag before restarting the race for tourist dollars. "It's better to be cautious and see if we get a vaccine in the next six months or a year," Torres said.


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