TALLAHASSEE — While leaders push back against a federal recommendation to close bars and halt indoor restaurant dining, Florida’s tourism-marketing agency is looking west as the industry continues trying to rebound during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next target audience for Visit Florida will be the West Coast, expanding earlier efforts that targeted travelers from East Coast cities who could drive or take short flights to Florida.
“Think California, Oregon and Washington state,” Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said during an online meeting Friday of the Visit Florida Executive Committee. “Though the international outlook remains pretty uncertain right now, we are doing everything in our power to keep Florida top of mind through our agencies and making sure that we are in the best possible position to not only regain market share, but to expand our market share when global travel resumes.”
But before the next marketing phase is introduced in the coming weeks, concerns linger about a Jan. 17 White House Coronavirus Task Force recommendation to close Florida bars, indoor dining, gyms and any other indoor spaces where masks are not worn 100 percent of the time to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“My phone’s been blowing up about the president’s COVID task force wanting Florida to shut down all bars, restaurants and gyms,” said committee member Carol Dover, who is president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Florida’s hospitality and leisure industries have been among the most damaged by the pandemic, and Dover said such closures would “hurt our tourism numbers pretty drastically.”
The chances of Florida shuttering the businesses appear slim to none, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has been adamant that he will not repeat closures that happened last spring after the pandemic hit the state.
When he rolled out a $96.6 billion budget proposal on Thursday, DeSantis again emphasized that message.
“While so many other states have (been) locking people down, Florida lifted people up,” DeSantis said. “We believe every job is essential. You work in a restaurant; we have your back. If you are a hairstylist, we protect your right to earn a living. And if you’re a parent, we ensure your kids have the right to attend school in person. Lockdowns do not work.”
Danny Gaekwad, vice chairman of the Visit Florida Executive Committee, called the task force proposal “a nonsense idea.”
A White House profile report Sunday listed Florida as being in the “red zone” for the virus but didn’t mention enacting business closures. As of Thursday, Florida had 4,367 reported resident deaths from COVID-19 in January, the most for any month. The 363,751 additional cases reported for January also were the most for any month since the pandemic began.
As part of his budget proposal unveiled Thursday, DeSantis recommended that Visit Florida receive $50 million during the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal year, the same amount as in the current year.
House Republican leaders in recent years have criticized spending by Visit Florida, which faced a renewed threat during the 2020 legislative session of being put out of business. But the final stages of budget negotiations occurred as the pandemic was causing theme parks, sporting events and businesses to halt operations.
In addition to the $50 million in funding, lawmakers last year extended the authorization of Visit Florida to Oct. 1, 2023.
Senate Commerce and Tourism Chairman Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, has filed a proposal (SB 778) for the 2021 session that would eliminate the possibility of a repeal in 2023.
“It would also clarify what is otherwise a confusing part of the statutory framework that we work under, clarify that we can carry funds forward if they are unspent due to something like a hurricane, or currently, the pandemic and things like that,” Young said.
Young said a House version of the bill is expected to be filed soon. The 2021 session will start March 2.