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How The Coronavirus Pandemic Might Affect States With Big Tourism Economies


States across the country are starting to reopen, including some with popular summer tourist destinations. But with the coronavirus still an active and lethal threat, it's hard to imagine what this year's summer vacations will even look like. NPR member station reporters Brendan Byrne in Florida, Steve Mistler in Maine and Dan Boyce in Colorado are trying to figure that out for us.

Welcome to all three of you.




CHANG: OK. So all the states that you guys are in have huge tourism economies. That is why we wanted you in this conversation. Are the governors where you are trying to quickly reopen tourist attractions and things like hotels and restaurants? Brendan, let's start with you in Florida.

BYRNE: Well, the Republican governor here, Ron DeSantis - he's been very vocal about his desire to restart the economy. But that being said, he's taking a very measured approach. Last week, he opened up restaurants and retail shops, but only at a quarter capacity. Places like gyms and movie theaters remain closed.

CHANG: And what about the beaches there?

BYRNE: Well, they're starting to reopen, but just how and when is up to each county or municipality. Local governments can override the state's order and impose stricter measures, so there's no timeline for when all of the state's beaches will be reopened. Hard-hit areas like South Florida counties Broward and Miami-Dade, which held off on the initial plan to reopen last week, have now approved measures to start a phased reopening next week. But under those plans, beaches in both counties will remain closed for now.

BOYCE: This is Dan in Colorado. That's a pretty similar situation to what we have here. The rules for when, say, certain campgrounds or outdoor recreation areas can reopen - those rules are a real patchwork based on location, like what county you're in or, you know, who's in charge of the areas.

Meanwhile, our Democratic governor, Jared Polis - he met with President Trump at the White House just yesterday. And Polis told Trump he's going to decide toward the end of this month whether and how restaurants might be able to further open to service beyond takeout. And he's also going to decide then whether ski resorts can reopen for spring skiing, which in Colorado is a thing that lasts, in some places, into late June or sometimes even July.

CHANG: Yeah. But didn't the big ski resort counties have the first big clusters of coronavirus cases in Colorado?

BOYCE: Exactly. So that really started in early March. Governor Polis then ordered all the state ski resorts to shut down March 14, you know, recognizing people were coming from all over the world to ski in Colorado. And they were bringing infections here, and then local residents were then taking the virus back home after getting infected on their ski trips.

CHANG: OK. Steve Mistler, let's go to you. Your state, Maine, started requiring a two-week quarantine for out-of-state visitors back in March. How do businesses in Maine feel about that - these businesses that rely on tourists?

MISTLER: Yeah, a lot of them are very concerned about it, Ailsa. And they're putting a lot of pressure on Democratic Governor Janet Mills to do something about it, to make some sort of change. I mean, some of these businesses really need the summer months to pay their bills and turn a profit. And that's because some hotels, campgrounds and even some restaurants are essentially seasonal businesses. Some close for the winter. So for them, losing the first half of the summer season is a killer.

CHANG: Yeah.

MISTLER: Some might take a loss even if they're allowed to operate at reduced capacity and with safety restrictions. Then the other thing that's important to note here about Maine is that most tourists stay here an average of three to four days. So the idea that tourists are going to come here and quarantine for 14 days and then proceed to their normal vacation seems a bit far-fetched.

CHANG: Right.

MISTLER: And so far, there's no timetable for ending the quarantine.

CHANG: Well, is this quarantine even enforceable?

MISTLER: Well, that's a big question, and it's on a lot of people's minds. There are penalties and fines associated with violating the quarantine, but local police have basically said they're not going to just randomly pull over people with out-of-state plates. I think there's a hope that visitors will simply adhere to the requirement. And in that sense, it's acting as more of a deterrent than an actual enforcement.

BYRNE: And Florida is definitely seeing pushback to the governor not throwing the door open more widely to businesses. Some mayors are saying they won't enforce the order to reopen. One of these cities is Ocala in North Central Florida. We spoke with Chris Schweers, who owns a diner there, and he says they're already ignoring the governor's orders.


CHRIS SCHWEERS: We're going to go ahead and just make up our own mind. We are prepared to break that. I haven't had a boss for 12 years. Unfortunately, the governor has - he's no longer my boss, I guess is a way you could say that.


BOYCE: In Colorado, there - there's this recognition that even if restrictions on travel and tourist-related businesses are lifted, people across the country may not be ready to hop on airplanes right away. So the state tourism office - they have an answer for that. They're trying to get ahead of all this. And actually, they just launched a new campaign with the slogan, can't wait to CO.

CHANG: CO, as in Colorado. Are people going to get that? (Laughter).

BOYCE: That's right. CO stands for Colorado. And so they tell me the idea is to get people really excited to come visit Colorado eventually - like, not right now. Stay safe. Stay at home. But while you are stuck at home, start making those Colorado plans.

BYRNE: And here in FL - that's Florida - the state's plan...


BYRNE: ...Is to market towards in-state travel rather than attract out-of-state guests. So there's some 22 million people living here in Florida. But in a normal year - like, last year, we got 119 million visitors from out of state.


BYRNE: Many of those out-of-state visitors come here for conventions. Here in Orange County, most large convention events have been canceled, and that affects more than just the convention center. It affects the hotel, catering and production industries.

BOYCE: Some Colorado tourism businesses say they're shifting their marketing to local and regional visitors, too. I talked with a guy who runs a river raft outfitters association here. His name's Bob Hamel.

BOB HAMEL: You know, we have a lot of people with a lot of pent-up energy here in Colorado and close by.

CHANG: Not just Colorado.

BOYCE: Pent-up energy everywhere.

CHANG: Yeah.

BOYCE: State officials - they're still telling people here in Colorado that they should not travel more than 10 miles from home to recreate, and that's making people here kind of stir-crazy. But when locals are allowed to roam a little further, losing a large chunk of out-of-state visitors for the summer would be huge. Tourism brings in more than $22 billion annually into the state, and summer is the busiest season.

MISTLER: Yeah, the losses in Maine would be huge, too. I mean, last year, tourism generated $6.5 billion in consumer spending. That's about 10% of the state's gross domestic product. Most of that spending takes place between Memorial Day and the fall foliage season, which ends around mid-October. So losing any of that spending would definitely run counter to the state's Vacationland brand, which has appeared on the license plates here since the 1930s.

CHANG: Oh, man. Well, on top of all this, I want to ask about Disney because, Brendan, I know that there are a lot of people out there who are probably wondering about Disney theme parks in Florida. Those have been closed since - what? - March 15. I mean, these are parks that get visitors from all over the world. Are they going to remain closed?

BYRNE: For now, they remain closed, and it's unclear when they'll reopen. We're seeing indications that Disney might be taking reservations for July, which would be an indication that they would be reopening. And other theme parks would likely follow suit. But for now, most of Disney's 77,000 workers remain furloughed, and the gates are shuttered.

CHANG: That's Brendan Byrne from WMFE in Orlando, Steve Mistler with Maine Public Radio and Dan Boyce with Colorado Public Radio.

Thanks, everybody.

BYRNE: You bet.

MISTLER: Thank you.

BOYCE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.

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