PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. – Health experts and tourism officials are urging Tampa Bay residents and visitors to follow safety guidelines ahead of the upcoming spring break season. According to Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, March is typically the area's busiest month for tourism, but the industry has taken a hit during the pandemic.

In March 2019, the tourism group said the area saw 88.6% hotel occupancy.

That dropped to 52.6% last year.

What You Need To Know

“It was in the month of March where we had two great weeks, and basically, it closed everything down from there. And that really was the fall — as in, the plummet down in business," Visit St. Pete-Clearwater President and CEO Steve Hayes said. “And so, as we come to this March, this is where we’re really hoping that we start to see a bigger rebound than what we’ve had previously. All indications are right now that we’re going to see that. It still won’t be to the 2019 levels, but it’s not going to be what we saw in 2020.”

Images of spring breakers packed onto Clearwater Beach during the beginning of the pandemic drew national attention. University of Florida Associate Professor of Epidemiology Dr. Cindy Prins said those situations aren't ideal, but it's another type of gathering that has her more concerned ahead of this year's spring break.

"I think the major concern comes when people go congregate inside bars and restaurants, partying in hotel rooms — all those things that people do at spring break. That’s where we worry about people getting exposed and potentially seeing a rise in cases from that," Prins said.

While Florida has seen a steady decline in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in recent weeks, Prins said that's no reason for people to let their guard down.

"I want to emphasize that we’re not at a level of comfort at this point. We’re lower in cases than we were before, but we still have enough transmission in the state to be concerned about. So, certainly concern on its own for where we are, and then some concern for maybe events come up and things like that that could effect that transmission, as well," said Prins.

Visit St. Pete-Clearwater launched its "Rise to Shine" campaign to educate visitors about local safety protocols and to ask them to take four main steps while in the area:

  1. Wear masks
  2. Social distance
  3. Wash hands
  4. Practice kindness and patience

The group is also making information available at popular tourist destinations, like hotels, about what county and city regulations are in place.

"It’s easily something they can review and have with them versus trying to guess what needs to be done because it varies in different places across the state of Florida or in other places," Hayes said. 

They're also offering incentives. Starting Friday, Feb. 26, "Sunshine Steward Street Teams" will head to tourist spots and give visitors they find following protocols $25 gift cards to participating businesses. Tourists who sign the "Rise to Shine" pledge are automatically entered to win an "Ultimate Beach Getaway."

Prins said people who live in Tampa Bay should be aware of increased visitors in the coming weeks and continue following safety guidelines. She also had recommendations for tourists.

“Florida is beautiful at this time of year, so sit outside, eat outside. Do those things that are a little bit safer rather than take a lot of risks while you’re here," said Prins. "I would encourage people to have a little bit of a calmer vacation rather than a really hard partying spring break. I don’t discourage people, necessarily, from visiting, but saying please do it responsibly.”

She said it's also a good idea for travelers to get tested for COVID-19 once they return home.