PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Labor Day weekend is off to a more unusual start in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on tourism.
Beach business owners tell ABC Action News they’re anxious to start welcoming back tourists, but in a safe way to avoid another spike in COVID-19 cases.
Lucy Davis, an employee at Extreme Pizza says the restaurant has been even more empty since kids returned to school.
“I miss it. I miss the rush of Clearwater Beach. I’ve worked on this beach for over 3 years,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. I can get here in 10 minutes. Usually, it would take me 40 minutes to get over the Memorial Causeway Bridge so it’s been really slow.”
Davis can’t wait to see more customers visiting Extreme Pizza and the sugary white sand of Clearwater Beach.
David Yamada, the General Manager of the Wyndham Clearwater Beach Resort agrees. Yamada says 40% of his staff are still waiting to get called back to work after being laid off during the pandemic.
“Tourism won’t come back until people are comfortable traveling. We came off of a fabulous year in 2019 and who would ever have thought you’d be laying off your staff to this degree,” Yamada said with emotion.
Yamada says occupancy is picking up, but slowly.
Now, Visit St. Pete Clearwater is kicking off a new $2 million Rise to Shine Campaign. The focus is on uniting Pinellas County businesses in a mission to keep visitors and locals safe.
“This weekend will show tourists what we have going on here in this county that we are following all the highest standards,” said Cookie Kennedy, the Indian Rocks Beach Mayor.
Posters, billboards and airport signage will help tourists understand Tampa Bay’s mask rules and other protocols, while businesses step up prevention measures.
In Pinellas County, tourism employs one out of every 10 people and contributes $328 every second to our local economy, according to Visit St. Pete Clearwater.
“We definitely depend on the tourism that comes here to really keep our economy moving,” Davis elaborated.
The new Rise Up to Shine Campaign will focus will be on welcoming visitors back from drivable destinations first, including Orlando which is a major feeder for tourism in the slower summer months. Then, tourism leaders will look at expanding the campaign to other parts of the United States.