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Longboat Key Monday, Jul. 27, 2020 2 weeks ago

Neighbors drive summer tourism

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'Staycationers' have replaced the typical vacationers from all over the world because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
by: Nat Kaemmerer Staff Writer

This is the summer of the road trip, say operators of tourist-reliant businesses in Longboat Key and its surrounding area as nearby "staycationers" replace typical warm-weather visitors. 

Locals are sticking around and treating themselves to a weekend away on Longboat Key or a socially distanced ice cream on St. Armands Circle. While the surge of business isn’t totally making up for lost revenue during the pandemic’s early day, but it’s a breath of fresh air for the area. 

Bookings for resorts and vacation condos are holding around 85% occupancy through July, and many are sold out for September’s Labor Day weekend.

Countywide studies show the majority of visitors are coming from  the Tampa Bay area, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Naples-Ft. Myers and Orlando.

Many mask up at St. Armands Circle.

“It’s normal that it drops off in August and September, usually to about 35% capacity, but everyone is hanging in there for July,” Loefgren said. 

On May 21, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation approved Sarasota and Manatee counties’ plans to resume vacation-rental operations. Since then, Sand Cay Beach Resort general manager Lyn Sorensen said her facility has been busy.

“I would say they opened the barn doors and the cattle have run,” said Sand Cay Beach Resort general manager Lyn Sorensen.

Sorensen says the biggest difference during the pandemic is guests are booking their stays a week or two out.

“We are so far off from where we are in pre-bookings,” Sorensen said. “It’s not even close.”

Many of the guests are driving from other parts of Florida or the Southeast, and guests at Sand Cay have to fill out paperwork to show where they’re visiting from before they can stay. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that requires travelers coming to Florida from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York to self-quarantine for 14 days remains in effect. Violators may be fined up to $500 or imprisoned for up to 60 days.

The “drive market” has always been big, but Casa Del Mar general manager Mark Meador said there are more people from Sarasota, Bradenton and Tampa than normal this year. 

“There’s that fear of the unknown, but people know what Florida is doing so they want to stay here,” Meador said. 

Casa Del Mar has happy guests and happy owners for the surprisingly strong summer.

Meador has been sitting near capacity at Casa Del Mar for a while. Usually, the guests drop off after Fourth of July, but they didn’t this year. The typically robust months of June and July held strong even about two and a half weeks longer than normal this year, he said.

Sorensen saw guests flock to Sand Cay in a similar way.

“We saw a vast improvement in June and July,” Sorensen said. “Now, we’re slowing down again, but this is the time of year we do slow down."

Stuart Barnes, Brian Haney and Kali Mathews mask up on St. Armands Circle.

Sand Cay and Casa Del Mar have both put up signage to encourage guests to wear a mask and to social distance. Town regulations require masks, even in private business' public spaces, when social distancing isn't feasible. 

“I can’t explain it because it’s almost like we give them this piece of normal back,” Sorensen said. “I cry when I think of it, but it’s just like for that week or those days, there’s some normal back in their lives.”

The return of the tourists is pumping life into the region, especially into the businesses at St. Armands Circle. The staycationers are out in full force to the relief of restaurants and retailers. Masks are a common sight.

Most people are grateful for the safety measures, St. Armands Circle Association executive director Diana Corrigan said, but there are those who don’t want to follow along despite the vast number of signs. 

Signs around St. Armands Circle remind folks to wear masks.

“The difficulty that we've had is enforcement, because there's only so much that we can do,” Corrigan said. “We are certainly doing everything we're supposed to do, but when you have people that say, ‘Well, I don't want to wear a mask,’ or ‘I'm not participating,’ we can't enforce it. We certainly need help from the city, whether it's code enforcement, or it's police officers.”

Michael Garey, owner of the Lazy Lobster on Longboat Key, has had a summer that went better than expected, despite the lost business from March and April. Actually, for May and June, the restaurant's profits were up over the same time period for 2019. The locals are flowing in, more people are willing to sit outside than normal in the Florida heat and take-out business is up seven times over last year. But it couldn't last forever. 

"It was all going really well until the cases started spiking in early July, and now it's back to negative territory where we're down from last year's figures," Garey said. "June was remarkably good, and now July is waning. Although it's not fantastic, we kind of thought it would be worse." 

Usually the hardest summer months in the area come in mid-August and September, after the kids go back to school and before the winter residents come down. Garey said those same sorts of business numbers are starting to creep up earlier than normal, which is troubling. 

On St. Armands Circle, the sentiment echoes: Businesses that have made it this far have had a better-than-expected summer,  Corrigan said. However, it’s not without its victims: About 30 businesses have closed in St. Armands Circle, in some cases due to unresolvable issues with rent and landlords. Loefgren said two Longboat Key massage services have shut their doors.

Even so, Loefgren said red tide problems in 2018 might have been a bigger business killer.

“More businesses went out of business in red tide because of the water, and no one was coming to visit because it was making global headlines,” Loefgren said. “Happy Paddler (a kayaking service) didn’t go out on the water for months.”

As for what constitutes a truly “good” summer, it’s hard to say, Corrigan said. The last few summers are hard to classify as “good” and it’s hard to compare numbers between crises. But the staycationers and in-state road trippers are supporting the region for now. 

“Through the shutdown, the residents on St. Armands and Longboat Key were very supportive of doing take-out with our businesses, which was really helpful,” Corrigan said. “A lot of people are trying to really support our local businesses, so that they can survive this.”

Nat Kaemmerer is your Longboat Key community reporter. She earned a bachelor's degree in magazine arts and culture journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2019 and has lived in Florida or Missouri her whole life. 

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