Fourth of July usually brings visitors to Southwest Florida in droves.
With Independence Day falling on Saturday and the holiday observed on Friday, it naturally creates a long holiday weekend for many workers, making it easier for them to get away for a quick trip.
However, more people are expected to stay home — or at least closer to home — and away from crowds this year to avoid exposure to the deadly virus.
With so much economic uncertainty caused by the virus, AAA didn’t issue its usual travel forecast for Fourth of July travel this year.
However, data company Arrivalist predicts Americans will take 36.8 million road trips over the long weekend based on its own index, which makes Independence Day the biggest road trip event so far this year.
“There’s nothing that binds Americans of all races, persuasions or beliefs together like the great American summer road trip,” said Cree Lawson, Arrivalist’s CEO and founder, in a news release. “Whether it’s a cross-country trip or a jaunt to see fireworks set off the highest local bridge, it’s a time-honored tradition, just like guessing how many Americans will hit the road.”
While many will still hit the road for the holiday weekend, road trip travel will be down 11% from last year based on the AAA’s forecast for 2019.
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That’s expected to leave more hotel rooms sitting empty in Southwest Florida, as the region’s tourism industry continues to fight for its survival after taking a big blow from COVID-19, which brought travel to a virtual standstill for three months starting in March.
“We are usually 100% occupied over the Fourth of July. This holiday we will be between 60-70% — weather dependent,” said Brian Kramer, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort Spa in Bonita Springs. “We always have a big contingent of drive-market staycationers over the holiday weekends and we expect this weekend to be the same.”
Many events in Southwest Florida have been canceled or postponed, including some of the usual fireworks displays and parades, over concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
After officials in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties decided to close their public beaches for the long weekend due to a spike in coronavirus cases on their coast, local leaders feared residents there might flock to this coast in greater numbers to enjoy the sand, surf and sun over the coming days, creating a greater safety risk.
Due to those concerns, several local governments, including Collier County, Marco Island and Naples, voted to restrict weekend beach hours and parking starting Friday.
Beaches and national parks are usually top draws for Fourth of July travelers.
Once the news hit about the closure of Miami’s beaches late last week, Kramer said he expected to see an immediate uptick in reservations at the Hyatt Coconut Point for the coming weekend, but that never happened.
“To date we have still just been on our normal pace of business,” he said.
By normal, Kramer said he means the “new normal,” which has left the hotel operating at a less than ideal occupancy, forcing it to keep more than 100 employees on a temporary layoff.
Some area hotels have self-imposed restrictions on capacity for safety reasons, which are designed to protect their guests — as well as their employees.
The Pink Shell Resort on Fort Myers Beach, for example, has set its occupancy limit at 85%, which makes it easier to follow the federal social distancing, cleaning and sanitation guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This weekend will be a good one for the resort, which has sold out all of its available rooms, said principal Robert Boykin.
“We have reached our capacity for a month now. So we expect to be as busy as we are allowing ourselves to be,” he said.
The Hotel Escalante, a boutique hotel in downtown Naples, will be fully occupied and operating at 100% capacity for the holiday weekend, said Mary Brandt, the owner.
On top of that good news, half the reservations are for four nights or longer, making the holiday business even better.
With rooms that are spread apart, its easier to keep guests at a safer distance, so there are no capacity limits in place at the hotel, Brandt said.
A few of the hotel’s guests this weekend will be Florida residents from the east coast, she said, but there are more travelers than usual coming from other parts of the country, including the Midwestern and Northeastern states.
When asked why more visitors are coming from up north, Brandt said: “Because cruises may be something they don’t want to do or international travel either.”
At the JW Marriott on Marco Island, Amanda Cox, director of sales and marketing, said all of the property’s available rooms sold out before government leaders decided to close beaches on Florida’s east coast, “so we’ve not really seen the impact of that recent news.”
Her resort has also limited its capacity for now.
“We are not selling the entire resort to ensure social distancing,” Cox said.
The resort plans “lots of social distancing-friendly opportunities to enjoy nature and the surrounding area, she said, but it’s still not offering its customary children’s activities, “as they don’t fit in with today’s social distancing environment or local health recommendations.”
“Marco Island has canceled its annual fireworks display for similar reasons, so we are crossing our fingers that Mother Nature gives us an amazing sunset that evening for our own version of fire in the sky,” Cox said.
Because the JW Marriott sits on a 10.1-acre private beach, the city’s decision to restrict beach access doesn’t impact its guests.
“We will continue with the same practice we’ve had since March of pre-setting all umbrellas and chairs on our private beach to ensure our guests enjoy the beach while observing appropriate social distancing,” Cox said.
Jenny Gezella, president of Naples Princess, said she’s been “happily surprised” by the demand for its two boats in Naples, which both offer daily cruises.
Still it’s not business as usual.
The tour boat operator can only operate at half of its capacity under the state’s current Phase 2 reopening rules, but it’s keeping its capacity at “just under 50%” to create enough spacing for people to feel comfortable, Gezella said via email.
“We are cruising on both boats five nights a week with limited daytime cruises,” she said. “It’s down mostly due to the restrictions of the 50% capacity versus the demand and us wanting to ensure a safe environment for guests and our staff.”
The local restrictions on public beach access this weekend could actually bring in more business, Gezella pointed out.
“Typically July 4th weekend people think of beaches and BBQs, but if the beaches are closed in the afternoon it may open up both local and visitors eyes to doing something else to get out on the water,” she said.
At The Shell Factory in North Fort Myers, owner Pamela Cronin expects a busy weekend ahead.
She anticipates seeing more customers originating from other parts of the state this holiday weekend — and for the rest of the summer, as many look to travel, but still stay closer to home.
The iconic attraction is lucky to be set up in a way that makes social distancing not so difficult. There’s an outdoor Nature Park and a 50,000-square-foot store, where separating visitors is “not a problem,” Cronin said in a text message.
There’s also a miniature golf course, with the “very reasonable” rate of $3 per person, making it a big attraction for families on a budget, especially in these hard economic times when so many people are still unemployed due to the pandemic.
As for the carousel and zipline, they’re kept extremely clean, with social distancing in place, Cronin assures.
“I think all of our local attraction owners are very caring and concerned about their staff and guests,” she said. “We live in a fabulous community.”
As she looks ahead she remains optimistic, despite the fact that fewer people are expected to take trips this summer.
AAA forecasts Americans will take a combined total of 700 million trips from July to September through all modes of transportation, including airplanes. That number is down nearly 15% when compared to the same months a year ago — and if it rings true it would be the first decline in summer travel seen since 2009.
“AAA booking trends show Americans are still making travel plans, though more cautiously and spur of the moment, often seeking long weekend getaways instead of extended vacations,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesman for AAA – The Auto Club Group, in a statement “When they do venture out, the greatest share of travelers will pack up the car for 683 million road trips.”
If it weren’t for the spread of COVID-19, AAA’s projected trip count for Americans this summer was expected to hit nearly 860 million — for a 3.6% increase over last year.
Based on those numbers, the pandemic wiped out nearly 150 million trips this summer.
Meanwhile, a recent study by Morning Consult commissioned by the American Hotel Lodging Association found that fewer than 45% of Americans are planning overnight vacation or leisure travel this year, with high interest in road trips, family events, and long weekends over the summer months.
Encouragingly, 68 percent of these travelers say they are likely to stay in a hotel in 2020.
Among Americans planning to travel in 2020, 59 percent expect to take their first overnight trip by the end of the summer. Summer road trips will take center stage, with 72 percent planning an overnight vacation via car over the next five months. Of these, 75 percent expect to drive two or more hours.
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