Spring break 2021: Okaloosa, Walton officials ready for whatever is thrown at them

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

As spring break 2021 draws ever closer, officials in Okaloosa and Walton counties are still wondering what they should expect at the onset of this year's tourism season.

Bookings are up, but school holiday cancellations are, too. The beaches and restaurants are open, but COVID-19 is still menacing the local population.

More:When does spring break 2021 start? Dates for schools, colleges in Florida and beyond

All things "new normal" only add to the unpredictability.

"People are not planning trips as far in advance," notes Walton County Tourist Development Council spokesman David Demarest. "And we learned last year anything forward-looking can change."

Walton County Sheriff's Office deputies check IDs on the beach during a previous spring break. Local officials aren't sure what to expect this year.

PHOTOS: Spring Break 2020 in Destin and South Walton amid coronavirus pandemic

One thing everyone can agree on is that this year has to be better than last, when the months of March and April were lost to the coronavirus and the Northwest Florida economy was forced to endure a devastating blow. 

Another is that local officials will be better prepared to cope with whatever comes.

"We are in a much more advantageous position COVID education-wise than last year. During this time last year, guidance on social distancing and PPE was in its fledgling stages," said Okaloosa Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox. "There is no 'learning curve' for the public now on best practices."

Visit South Walton posts a calendar on its website that shows the dates that schools within the Northwest Florida drive-in market are scheduled for spring break this year. The calendar indicates that the middle of March could be the initial peak time. 

Related:Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival to be celebrated this year in spring instead of summer

And while enough schools have canceled their spring breaks due to COVID-19 concerns to have caught the attention of local tourism gurus, missing out on an influx of high school and college students has become less of a worry the past few years, according to Okaloosa tourism consultant Martin Owen.

"Our tourism has changed. We're attracting more millennial families as opposed to strictly spring breakers," Owen said. "As the pandemic has come on, our previous attempts to target tourism to millennial families have been succeeding."

Demarest said the "price point" in South Walton County has historically tended to discourage large groups of college kids from converging on local beaches, and that more and more spring visitors are "multi-generational" family groups.

Students on spring break pose for a photo in March 2020 in Destin. Local law enforcement is planning for this year's spring break much as it has the past few years.

Local law enforcement officials have dealt with hordes of rowdy young partiers in the past, and are preparing for whatever the spring season might bring. 

"There’s talk that some colleges are canceling spring break, but our folks are hearing that since so many students are doing online learning, they still plan to take their spring break vacations," said Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson. "So we’re taking our normal steps with extra patrols on the roads and extra beach units."

Okaloosa Sheriff Eric Aden also sent out a letter to colleges and universities.

"It is my sincere wish that your stay here is safe and enjoyable. To help ensure that you have an enjoyable trip while avoiding getting into trouble, I want to caution you that the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office has a zero-tolerance policy for drunkenness and other offensive behaviors," the letter said. "I have instructed our deputies to arrest individuals found in violation."

Did you know? WCSO takes to the air to patrol spring break

Rhonda Comparin with Destin Yoga leads a Yoga class on the beach Wednesday near James Lee Park.

Okaloosa and Walton authorities have vowed to continue proactive efforts initiated several years ago to discourage underage drinking, disorderly conduct and out-of-control house parties.

"Like years past, we are still enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on underage drinking, house parties and similar spring break-related incidents that reduce the quality of life for our visitors and citizens," Walton County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Corey Dobridnia said in an email. "Our operation will mimic years prior with additional enforcement of low-speed vehicle violations. We welcome our visitors and are looking forward to a safe and enjoyable spring in Walton County."

Local tourism organizations are also trying to notify would-be visitors about precautions they'll need to take and COVID-19 protocols they'll encounter. 

"Certainly we worry about large congregations of people and the spread of COVID-19, but better outside than inside, as would occur during holiday celebrations," Maddox said.

By the way:Law enforcement ready for spring breakers

The Walton County Tourist Development website features a link at https://www.visitsouthwalton.com/covid-19-travel-updates/ that lets travelers know where the state and region stand as far as being open for business and offers advice on what protective items tourists should have on hand when they arrive.

"The page was much more robust when the beaches and restaurants were closed," Demarest said. "Our theme more recently has become 'stay healthy and be helpful.' We're asking our visitors to take steps not only to keep themselves healthy but our residents as well."