Virus causes nosedive in lodging bookings and closes eateries
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"Sad" and "unsteady" are adjectives local officials rarely use to describe the state of the local tourism industry.
Blame the coronavirus for the change in language, as well as nosedives in lodging bookings and temporary closures of dozens of eateries in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties.
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"I think you all know, the travel industry is very much affected" by the virus threat, Okaloosa County Tourist Development Department Director Jennifer Adams said at Tuesday’s emergency County Commission meeting. "Since the 21st of March, bookings have declined 98%."
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That avalanche reflects various area beach closures going into effect, as well as an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis that closed all restaurant dining areas in the state to help contain the spread of coronavirus.
Restaurants still can provide takeout orders and sell alcohol for takeout or delivery with a food order.
Since last Friday, however, 14 restaurants and two lodging establishments in Okaloosa County have shut down indefinitely, Adams said.
In Santa Rosa County, bookings at lodging establishments are down "quite a bit," said Julie White, director of the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Office.
"I don’t have an exact percentage," she said Wednesday. "We’ve had a lot of cancellations. I think this is an unsteady situation, a changing situation daily. I don’t know when people will start planning vacations again."
White said two lodging places are not accepting new reservations. One of those two establishments has temporarily closed.
In addition, 14 eateries, including coffee shops, ice-cream shops and wine bars, all in Navarre/Navarre Beach, are temporarily closed.
"It’s very frustrating," White said. "Most of the restaurants here are smaller and family owned."
The overall effect of the coronavirus on businesses in Walton County is "pretty extreme," said David Demarest, spokesman for the Walton County Tourist Development Council.
"Tourism supports about 22,000 jobs in Walton County," he said. "As long as we’re in lockdown for this, it puts all those jobs in jeopardy."
For this week and next week, occupancy at many local lodging establishments is less than 19% and 20%, respectively, Demarest said. He added that numerous lodging properties have been temporarily shut down and are not accepting reservations.
"Most of our accommodation partners who we have reached out to have expressed that they are offering refunds or are rescheduling trips," he said.
At least 16 eateries in the county have temporarily closed, according to information from the sowal.com website. The meager demand for to-go services has been a factor in many of the closings, Demarest said.
"We don’t want to encourage visitation at this time, but at the same time, tourism means about $5 million to the Walton County economy," he said. "It’s a sad situation."
While three Howard Hospitality hotels on Grand Boulevard are closed to the general public until April 30, the company is offering free lodging at one of the hotels — the Residence Inn by Marriott Sandestin at Grand Boulevard — to essential medical staff at Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital Emerald Coast.
In response to the hits to the travel industry, the Okaloosa County TDD is reducing its budget by 35%, or more than $8 million. Most of that total comes from cutting, or at least temporarily delaying, various planned capital improvements.
"The welcome centers and the convention center are closed" and much of the staff has been reassigned to other duties, Adams said at Tuesday’s emergency commission meeting.
All groups that had booked events at the convention center for April have been contacted, and most want to re-book, she said.
The commission on Tuesday approved a declaration that, among other things, strongly encourages the lodging industry to work with visitors in offering refunds and rescheduling of trips.
At Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, officials during this period normally see about 6,000 passengers per day, county Airports Director Tracy Stage told the commission. Now, however, they are seeing less than 10% of that figure, he said.
A DeSantis-issued executive order that took effect Tuesday requires people who travel to Florida from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to self-isolate for 14 days upon entering the state, or for the duration of their stay, whichever is shorter.
Now, per the Florida Department of Transportation Central Office, all airports in Florida are reporting what direct flights they have originating from the New York/Tri-State area per current airlines schedules, Stage said Wednesday in email.
He said the FDOT is then notifying the state Department of Health, which is then deploying staff to each airport with direct NY/Tri-State flights to screen those originating passengers.
Any person who violates any isolation or quarantine directed by the DOH commits a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days of imprisonment and a fine of up to $500, according to the governor’s executive order.