Florida may be considered one of the hotspots in the current COVID-19 surge, but the state nevertheless is reporting strong tourism numbers — at least during this year’s second quarter. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is crediting the state’s lack of pandemic restrictions for the success.
The Sunshine State welcomed 30.6 million domestic visitors during the months of April, May and June, up 216% on the year, according to preliminary estimates from Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism organization. Perhaps more significantly, it marked a 6% increase over the same quarter in the pre-pandemic period of 2019.
‘Florida continues to serve as an example for the country.’
“Florida continues to serve as an example for the country that when you reject lockdowns and unnecessary mandates, your economy will thrive,” said DeSantis in a statement.
Florida’s COVID-19 cases rose 38% over the last 14 days, giving a two-week average of 24,517, while coronavirus-related deaths increased 102% to 138 over the same period, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 41,138, according to the New York Times tracker.
Given the state’s current COVID-19 surge, the question remains whether travelers will continue to see Florida as a desirable destination, even with all its theme parks and beaches. Earlier this week, Palm Beach County, one of the state’s most popular destinations for visitors, declared a state of emergency.
Last week, more than 800 doctors in the state sent a letter to the governor asking him to repeal his order prohibiting schools from issuing mask mandates. “Blocking communities from making local decisions to protect themselves with his top-down, one-size-fits-all edict will only make matters worse,” the letter said.
“Gov. DeSantis should strongly encourage every eligible Floridian to get vaccinated and make vaccinations easier, including in local schools. Shots in arms are only part of an effective safety strategy,” it added.
Local officials, including some Republicans, have criticized DeSantis as well for his pandemic-related decisions.
“He’s a dictator,” Carlos Hernandez, the Republican mayor of Hialeah, told the Washington Post. “It’s a shame because we’re paying the price.”
Bucking a national trend
In many respects, Florida is bucking a national trend when it comes to tourism. The daily number of those traveling by plane, based on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint tallies, is still far below 2019 levels.
For example, on Wednesday, the TSA recorded 1,678,231 travelers, which represented a 27% decline over the figure for that same day two years ago.
Still, vacationers are seeking out certain destinations beyond Florida. Some national parks have seen a record number of travelers in recent months. In July, Yellowstone National Park crossed the monthly mark of one-million visitors for the first time in its storied history.
Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebooks, said the reason for the surge in certain domestic destinations, including Florida, has much to do with the fact that it’s still challenging for Americans to go abroad during the pandemic, especially with the recent upticks in cases due to the delta variant.
“A lot of Americans are rightly nervous about foreign travel,” she said.
‘A lot of Americans are rightly nervous about foreign travel.’
Nick Ewen, a Florida-based senior editor of the travel website The Points Guy, agrees with the governor that the Sunshine State’s relaxed pandemic policies have probably boosted travel, especially for vacationers who were also considering destinations with stricter rules.
“Whether you agree with Florida’s decisions or not, they had some appeal for some people,” he said.
On social-media outlets, many say they are cancelling Florida trips because of the rise in COVID-19 there.
One would-be traveler issued a pointed tweet a few days ago to DeSantis’s attention, saying, “We have had to cancel our $5,000 vacation to Fort Lauderdale because of your asinine policies on COVID and masks in your state. We have counseled our friends to do likewise.”
Indeed, travel experts say the outlook may not be as sunny for the Sunshine State going forward when it comes to attracting visitors.
“I think the momentum will be stalled,” said Frommer. “I don’t see how (Florida) can continue to be as popular.”
In a statement, Visit Florida president and chief executive Dana Young noted that her organization doesn’t make projections about tourism numbers ahead.
But she said that Visit Florida is “making every effort to keep this momentum going. Florida is home to endless safe vacation options that can be tailored to all comfort levels, and we are confident that this message will resonate with travelers no matter what.”