WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
WFSU Local News

Tourism Picks Back Up In Panhandle As COVID-19 Restrictions Lift

Valerie Crowder
Beachgoers practice social distancing on the sand in Panama City Beach, Florida on Saturday, May 16, 2020.

Visitors from other states are returning to Northwest Florida’s beaches. While the nation is still in the midst of a pandemic, the relaxation of traveling restrictions and the reopening of restaurants, beaches and short-term vacation rentals, is luring longtime visitors back to the coast.

Gordon and Ruby Carnes celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary sitting on the white sandy beach, watching the emerald Gulf waves rush to shore, as much of the country remained indoors under stay-at-home orders.

“We’re going to go out to eat,” said Gordon Carnes. “We rode the Harley down, and we’re going to ride the Harley back home.”

Ruby Carnes says the couple wouldn’t have made the nearly two-hour long ride down from their home in Enterprise, Alabama if the beaches had remained closed. “It feels so relaxing and great. The sun feels good. The breeze is wonderful. That’s why we came.”

Ahead of Memorial Day weekend, more people are traveling to Panama City Beach and other popular beach towns across the region. For local businesses, an influx of visitors could provide some relief after closed beaches drove people away. As local governments gradually reopened access to the sand, people began returning. Still, public health experts warn against vacation travel at this time.

When Walton County’s beaches were closed through April, hotel and resort bookings were down by about 90%, said Dave DeMarest, communications director for Walton County’s Tourist Development Council.

Reservations are set to rebound next month as beaches and short-term vacation rentals - resorts, townhomes and condos - reopen, he said. “We’d be back to about half of what we’d normally have in terms of visitation. That’s as it stands right now,” DeMarest said. “As states lift their stay-at-home orders and people become comfortable with travel and are able to travel, then I would expect those numbers to go up.”

Statewide travel restrictions are in place for people from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana. Those visitors must self-isolate for 14 days after they arrive in Florida. Many resorts won’t even book guests from these states or others deemed “high-risk,” which have more than 500 cases per 100,000 people.

“If you’re to travel right now, you don’t get a break from COVID-19,” he said. “That exists across America.”

That’s why the tourist development council is working to using TV ads, social media and its website to educate visitors on traveling safely during the pandemic.

Good hand hygiene and social distancing are important practices to continue, DeMarest said. Restaurant, retail and other hospitality employees are required to wear masks when interacting with others at work, while no rules are in place forcing the public to do the same. Social distancing guidelines, however, are being enforced in public spaces.

“Our local businesses are asked to do a lot more to keep people safe,” DeMarest said. “It might not be the same experience that you always have on your normal vacation.”

Over the last few weeks, visitors from other states have gradually been arriving in the area.

Mayor Mark Sheldon says out-of-state condo owners were the first to come back as beaches partially reopened in late April.

“There’s a lot of folks from Alabama and Georgia and Louisiana that they own vacation rental units here that they’re just staying in themselves because they can’t do things normal for themselves in their own town, so they’re in their units that they own here.”

With the beaches open, Sheldon says he expects more overnight visitors to vacation in town, staying in local hotels and resorts, which have permission to accept guests. “But there will probably be some day-trippers, too, who just want to come down and enjoy the beach.”

Michigan resident Jerry Bryant and his family arrived in Miramar Beach two days before the beaches reopened in Walton County, where he says they’ve owned a condo for 15 years. “We’ve seen the good times and the bad, with the recessions. And now this,” he said. “We’re happy that it’s reopening.”

Many local businesses along the Panhandle’s coast were built on tourism. Without it, they wouldn’t exist. During the stay-at-home order, it became evident what would happen to hotels, restaurants and shops without visitors in some popular tourist towns.

Osprey Driftwood Lodge .jpg
Valerie Crowder
Even though resorts and hotels have been allowed to stay open, the Osprey Resort and Driftwood Lodge in Panama City Beach on March 26, 2020 sat empty after local leaders closed the beaches to avoid a coronavirus outbreak.

John Comer’s family owns a chain of seafood restaurants between Panama City Beach and Destin, including The Back Porch Seafood and Oyster House and Pompano Joe’s. During the stay-at-home order, his family operated only two of their six restaurants in the area.

When the beaches were closed, it was difficult for them to stay open, Comer said.

“We’ve gotten a really good look at what it looks like down here when there are no tourists, and it’s been hard to stay open even just doing to-go business,” he said. “There are so few people here.”

In small beach towns like Miramar Beach and Panama City Beach, there aren’t enough local residents to support all the restaurants, which primarily serve tourists who flock there for vacation during the spring and summer months, Comer said.

“We’re very eager to get the tourists back down here,” he said. “They support all the businesses down here, especially ours. The tourists are just critical to this area.”

William Vinson is a merchandiser at Alvin’s Island stores in Panama City Beach. “Tourism’s everything. We’ve got to have it,” he said. “Hopefully, soon the economy will pick up and everything will be wide open again.”

Vinson, who says he’s worked for Alvin’s since the 1980s, spends most of the day on the road, transporting t-shirts, umbrellas, flip-flops and beach towels from the company’s warehouse to seven stores across town. He says business was dismal when the beaches were closed.

“Everybody you saw on the road was from here. You might see one or two out-of-towners, but that was it,” he said. “Now you see Alabama, Georgia, a few Tennessee, Kentucky. It’s picked up a bunch from what it was.”

Vinson, who also oversees the store’s warehouse, says he estimates sales are down by 55% from what they normally are at this time of year. But he’s hoping that will change soon, Vinson said.

“We’ve got the merchandise, all we need’s the people with money in their pockets,” he said. “I believe it will pick up. We’ll find out Fourth of July weekend. When that hits, that’s usually a giant weekend for us, and we’ll find out then for sure.”

Panama City Beach May 16.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Beachgoers return to the sand before sunset on Saturday, May 16, 2020 in Panama City Beach. Nobody on the beach was wearing a mask, but people were practicing social distancing.

Vacationing during the pandemic conflicts with advice from public health experts. The U-S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines warn against unnecessary travel at this time. The World Health Organization and Florida Department of Health also recommend the same.

“If you have locations where they’ve really just had residents, and now they’re going to have an influx in visitors, then certainly that can increase the risk,” said Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. “You have more people, more potential to spread the virus around.”

With its high-rise condos, hotels and resorts, Panama City Beach has the capacity for roughly 150,000 people, but only about 13,000 live there year-round.

For those who decide to travel, Prins stresses the importance of practicing good hand hygiene, avoiding close contact with others outside the home and wiping down high-touch surfaces in vacation rental units, including hotel rooms.

“We don’t know whether COVID -19 is going to go away for summer and come back or whether it’s going to stay with us at some level,” she said. “I think that it’s very much going to be dependent on what we do as a society to try to protect ourselves and others.”

While many believe that heat, humidity and sunlight will protect them from the virus, there isn't enough scientific evidence to confidently say for sure, Prins said.

"We have a high level of circulation and a population that really doesn’t have immunity to this virus for the most part," she said. "You’ve got to take that into consideration when you think about things like the effect of heat and humidity and sunlight."

As people venture from their homes, the Florida Department of Health is reporting new coronavirus cases and deaths in coastal counties across the region. The rate of new cases has remained at or below 6% for many of those counties.

Still, many who are traveling are less concerned about the virus.

“We always wash our hands. We have common sense,” said Karen Drone of Jamestown, Tennessee. “But Are we panicked or freaked? No.”

Drone and her husband Steve Drone say they traveled to Panama City Beach to look for a house in the area. They say this isn’t their first time visiting the popular beach town, where they’re staying at a campground near the sandy shore.

During their visit last week, the couple were among clusters of other beachgoers scattered along the shore-line. “It’s nice to see people out living again,” Drone said. “It feels good.”

While nobody on the beach were wearing masks, people were practicing social distancing.

“This is not very crowded at all, compared to what we’ve seen in years past,” Steve Drone said. “But it is quite a few people.”