By Samantha Johns
Tourism in Florida is down 10.7 percent in the first quarter of 2020, according to a report posted online by Visit Florida, while businesses figure out how to make revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida health officials point to a growing number of cases since March, with no end in sight.
Miami government officials are asking locals and visitors to stay home in an effort to stay safe, save lives, and flatten the curve during the coronavirus pandemic.
“People should only be outside for exercise and attending to their necessities like shopping for groceries or visiting a pharmacy,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. “It won’t be like this forever, but for now in a community like ours this makes the most sense.”
The first known cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Miami and reported on March 1, according to the Florida Department of Health. At the time only 2 cases were being talked about. The first was connected to travel to Italy, a hotspot for the virus prior to it making its way here in the U.S., and the second was an older resident of Manatee County.
Because the state government has had a hands-off policy toward the pandemic, Miami businesses have had to step forward and fight for their survival.
“There was a lot of misunderstanding not only across the country but really around the world in terms of how serious this was and in terms of do people want to travel,” said Andrew Wobensmith, director of research and business intelligence for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), who’s responsible for analyzing tourism trends in the greater Miami area. “If so, where should they go and what are the precautions they should be taking.”
“My constituents are afraid to even go out and have dinner,” said Ken Russell, commissioner of District 2 in Miami. “So there’s certainly not a call from constituents to see more people anywhere at this point. Those who would be advocating for positive steps in tourism would be those in the industry, ” he said.
Miami-Dade remained one of the last counties, along with Broward and Palm Beach, to begin reopening under the state’s Phase 1 plan. All three counties were singled out by Governor DeSantis for having higher than average cases.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez stalled plans to move the city into Phase 3 as cases continued to break records. Despite the evidence of a second wave he decided against issuing another stay-at-home order.
According to Russell, the city and county haven’t been working together on their reopening plans despite having jurisdictions that overlap. This has left much confusion for businesses to determine what policies they should be following. “The two municipalities or jurisdictions are on such divergent paths. We haven’t had as good of a relationship to work together on that up to now, but I’m hoping that improves,” he said.
Small businesses, which make Miami the culturally diverse city that’s attracted tourists in the past, have been seeking further assistance from the local government. In an effort to support them, Russell sponsored 3 agenda items to help fill in the gaps the federal government has missed in order for these businesses to survive. The COVID-19 Micro-Enterprise Assistance Program, Small Business Emergency Loan Program, and Emergency Technical Assistance for Small Business were all approved by Miami City Commission to help owners by educating them on how to access funding.
“While the federal government has the big bucks, they don’t have the nuance or their finger on the pulse of a local community and where the need is and how to service that need. We created the programs for small business aid because they’re not going to make it and they’re having trouble navigating the federal system,” he said.
As the city continues to crack down on businesses to ensure they’re abiding by social distancing guidelines, it’s been a difficult process for business owners to reopen their doors right away. With stricter sanitation regulations, capacity limits, and even temperature checks being required of guests businesses are having to operate much differently.
In addition to the pandemic, protests because of racial injustices connected to the George Floyd case caused curfews to be initiated again county and city-wide causing another major hit. This forced business owners to close their doors earlier than desired shortly after being given the green light to reopen.
While generating volume is a challenge during these times, John Noble Masi, professor at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism, said that businesses can still bounce back in a time that seems all hope may be lost.
“I haven’t seen as many businesses just close their doors entirely. At least in South Florida, businesses have had to retool and maybe shift gears on what they do,” he said. From focusing more on delivery and online orders to creating specially curated at-home cocktail kits Masi knows business owners can still be successful. They just have to pivot the way they bring everything consumers love about exploring Miami into their homes.
Masi, who’s been heavily involved in the annual Sobe Food and Wine Festival, recognized that while this year will be a step back for restaurant owners, past numbers bode well for their return.
“One of the best statistics that I share with students is 20 years ago, the amount of money that people spent on food away from home of their total food budget was 25 cents on the dollar. In recent years, that has doubled to more than 50 cents on the dollar, so the amount of money that Americans were spending on their food budget the majority of that the past 3 or 4 years was spent away from home,” he said.
Wobensmith who has been updating the GMCVB’s recovery and activity indexes for Miami-Dade county each week since the beginning of March has gotten to see how much of an impact the virus has made on tourism even though we’re still in the midst of the pandemic.
According to the GMCVB (Links to an external site.), driving and dining have had higher returns in the month of June compared to air travel and hotel bookings. Traditionally Miami-Dade comes in at number 2, just behind Orlando, for the number of hotel rooms sold across the state of Florida. Since early April, it’s shifted down between number 5-7 in the few weeks leading into early June, with the Florida Panhandle now taking the highly coveted number 1 slot.
Wobensmith attributes the increased demand for hotels in this area during the summer months to 2 words. Open beaches.
“Places like the Panhandle that did not have quite the same restrictions that we did [in Miami], and lifted them earlier, were able to capitalize on that demand. Beach destinations have been in high demand for the past couple of months. However, people are not able to travel to their favorite beaches, so we had this Panhandle that really has taken advantage of what we would call this pent up demand,” said Wobensmith.