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Locals may outnumber tourists at beaches this Memorial Day weekend

Annie Blanks
Pensacola News Journal

Memorial Day weekend may look different this year than it has in years past due to COVID-19, but officials are still preparing for a potentially busy weekend to kick off the summer season.

All typical Memorial Day weekend celebrations have been canceled this year due to the coronavirus, including the LGBT beach festivities and the Bands on the Beach concert series. But local leaders still expect large numbers of people will head to the beach over the three-day weekend.

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"We’re not going to have a lot of the traditional festivals and events that we’ve had over Memorial Day weekend, so that’s a bulk of people that won’t be here,” said Nicole Stacey, director of marketing and communications for Visit Pensacola. "But I do think that based on what we’ve heard and anecdotally, we’re going to have a very good weekend."

The Santa Rosa Island Authority reiterated in a news release earlier this week that Pensacola Beach is open to the public from sunrise to sundown. All beach-goers must be in groups of 10 people or less and remain at least six feet apart from all others sharing the beach.

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“The SRIA enjoys welcoming all visitors to our beautiful beach, but in accordance with state and federal guidelines, there will be no events or mass gatherings allowed this weekend in order to prioritize the health, safety and welfare of the public,” said Paolo Ghio, executive director of the SRIA, in the press release .

However, Northwest Florida locals are still expected to turn out to the beach in droves. A little more than 20,000 cars were counted at the tolls this past Saturday — more cars than usually come through for the Blue Angels air show weekend, according to Rusty Branch, director of Pensacola Beach's Destination Marketing Organization.

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"(Memorial Day weekend) is not going to be as busy as past years by any means, just because of the situation," Branch said. “But we may see a lot of cars go through the toll booth. Locals seem to have come out pretty heavy last weekend.”

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation on Tuesday approved plans from seven Panhandle counties, including Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, to once again take reservations for short-term vacation rentals. Short-term rentals have been prohibited since mid-March to discourage out-of-state visitors from coming to Florida and spreading coronavirus.

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But the news may come too little, too late for many potential Memorial Day weekend renters, Branch said.

“From a lodging standpoint, a lot of vacation rentals and those things are planned out months in advance,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that vacation rentals weren’t allowed to rent (last) Friday to begin with, but also, the governor did what he did for safety reasons, and so we respect that.”

On Navarre Beach, fire chief Danny Fureigh, who also heads the beach lifeguard program, said they are expecting significant crowds this weekend.

“I think it’s going to be the busiest season that we’ve seen, I really do,” he said. “The weather is supposed to be perfect, and we’re already seeing a lot more people coming to the beach than previous years. We’re anticipating a packed house.”

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.