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Florida Hotel Hot Spots Become Ghost Towns Because Of Coronavirus

Empty hotel parking lot
Maria Tsyruleva
The Wydham Hotel in Clearwater Beach sits behind an empty parking lot. Hotels around the Tampa Bay area have become ghost towns with tourism rates plummeting during the coronavirus outbreak.

Hotels in Florida that typically would be packed for spring break and the promise of summer have become ghost towns during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It has affected every aspect of tourism, not only rates and occupancy, but just everything that exponentially unfolds outside of a person that checks in to a hotel or a vacation rental,” said Robin Miller, CEO of Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.

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Hotels are considered an essential business based on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that established a statewide "safer-at-home" directive. However, some organizations have interpreted the order differently and asked their member hotels and motels to close.

“That's our understanding of it,” said Virginia Haley, President of Visit Sarasota. “I'm sure each hotel has slightly different preferences. But that's the interpretation that the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association provided in the video from Carol Dover, their president.”

Sarasota hotels remain closed to all regular visitors, but they allow essential personnel to use them. That includes hospital workers who need a place to sleep if they are afraid that they may be contagious and don’t want to go home.

Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce hasn't asked their members to close. However, due to restrictions on many activities, Miller said most of their hotels have closed voluntarily as it is not cost-effective to keep skeleton crews on duty for three to four rooms out of 50 to 80 occupied.

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“In conjunction with certain types of businesses being forced to close and that was staggered from strictly bars then to restaurants, then vacation rentals and now non-essential businesses, it just innately has created really just a ghost town,” said Miller.

Layoffs in the industry have become common.

Visit Tampa Bay, which is Tampa's tourism marketing agency, announced about 40 layoffs and furloughs Monday because it relies in part on hotel bed tax revenue.

A statement from CEO Santiago Corrada said the reduction, which takes the company to 21 core positions, “was not an easy one.”

“It was necessary to ensure that we are properly positioned to undertake the essential destination programing that will propel our industry forward when the travel ban is lifted,” said Corrada.  We are eager to return to our mission of “inspiring the world to love Tampa Bay.””

Haley said for most of their member hotels in Sarasota, 75 to 90% of their staff has been laid off.

“Those layoffs started four weeks ago, and they've not stopped,” said Miller. “And there is not one business I know of from Pass-A-Grille to Clearwater Beach that has not laid off or furloughed people.”

Miller and Haley said their groups are making plans for when hotels reopen. Haley said they keep receiving phone calls about business meetings and group bookings for the next year.

However, it will not be an easy road to recovery.

According to a Visit Florida release, because of COVID-19, hotels are facing a 77.4% decrease in demand, a $365.4 million decrease in revenue, and an 81.4% decrease in vacation rental bookings statewide.

“It will be drastic because in places like Sarasota County, a lot of the revenue for local governments or programs, the estimates are somewhere around 25% of that revenue comes from visitor spending,” said Haley. “And now all of a sudden, you've lost that revenue, and then it starts to ripple.”

Hospitality workers who are unemployed or financially struggling can visit the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce website for resources, including help applying for stimulus checks and mental health assistance.

For those in Sarasota, Haley said they have announced The Giving Challenge as an online donation event to help local organizations.

Miller added that she's also received calls from members of the chamber that said they will not be re-opening back up.

But when things do start up again, Miller hopes guests allow hotels and other hospitality businesses time to readjust.

“Having some compassion and patience as these businesses start to reopen is vital to our entire community because if we can't have compassion and patience, these businesses are all going to have to learn to operate in different ways,” she said. “Some of them with less staff than they have, some of them are going to have to maybe limit some of the things that they've used to do...this has been a major impact … in the overall aspect of operating.”

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Vanessa Henry is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for spring 2020.