Will the pandemic decimate Spring Break 2021?

Spring Breakers enjoying the beach; will that repeat for Spring Break 2021
Photo via Sun International South Africa/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The coronavirus outbreak in 2020 occurred just as spring breaks were beginning around the country. Many people canceled flights and hotel plans, but the pandemic didn’t stop rowdy college students from flocking to the beaches of South Florida to party. As a result, Miami soon became an epicenter for COVID-19 as cases skyrocketed. Will the same thing happen over Spring Break 2021?

As the world approaches the first anniversary of the pandemic and spring break season looms once again, tourist destinations are much more prepared for an influx of young people. But will they come, or have college students learned from the disastrous aftermath of Spring Break 2020?

As of early March 2021, Florida is among 10 states with the highest rates of new daily COVID cases, and Miami-Dade County has one of the highest rates within the state. Meanwhile, the decision by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to lift state mask mandates and restrictions tied to capacity seems to have come at a bad time.

It is important to note that hotels and restaurants along the Southern coastline depend on spring break season for profit. Low-priced flights combined with a long, lonely winter will likely encourage spring breakers to take the risk in seeking an escape in warmer weather.

Many colleges and universities have canceled Spring Break 2021 outright in an attempt to prevent students from amassing at hot spots and bringing COVID-19 cases back with them. On university in California even offered students $75 apiece not to go on a trip. Despite this, officials are still expecting large crowds in the coming weeks.

How are Spring Break destinations planning to safely welcome visitors?

Steve Hayes, president and chief executive of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, told the New York Times that he’s not looking to see a repeat of last year. “What we want is a picture that says, what a difference a year makes,” he said.

In Miami, bars, restaurants, and clubs will be open at no less than 50% capacity, and a strict midnight curfew will be enforced from Feb. 22-April 12, when peak activity is expected. The city is taking a zero-tolerance approach, with plans to ramp up police presence and code-compliance staffers to enforce safety measures. Alcohol, beach tents, scooters, and loud music on beaches will be prohibited for Spring Break 2021, and patrols will be enforcing social distancing within groups and mask-wearing when appropriate.

Some destinations have also launched campaigns urging young people to vacation responsibly. Officials in St. Petersburg and Clearwater have posted frequent signage promoting hand washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing. Ambassadors called “Sunshine Steward Street Teams” have also been enlisted to hand out gift cards from local businesses to those following rules and wearing masks correctly.

Another campaign to encourage safe behavior involves asking visitors to sign a pledge promising to follow safety rules in exchange for being entered into a prize drawing.

The lifted restrictions present additional challenges in Texas, where revelers typically flock to tourist cities along the Gulf Coast. In Corpus Christi, police said they plan to follow and enforce what local leaders decide. Starting on March 5, there will be extra patrol units, traffic units, and DWI units.

“We want everyone to have a great time out at the beach for spring break, but we also want to make sure they’re safe,” Corpus Christi Police Captain Trenade Paddock Roberts said during a press conference to discuss the city’s plans.

The popular South Padre Island will not be issuing permits for stages and activities. On beaches, groups will be limited to a maximum of 10 people, and beach umbrellas must be spaced at least 15 feet apart with no more than two chairs. Despite the governor’s orders, masks will be required everywhere and provided for free at the visitor’s center.

“We are calling it ‘coastal distancing’ with our sunshine, wind, and water being a natural way to keep families in their own bubble,” Ed Caum, director of the South Padre convention and visitor’s bureau, said.

Unauthorized events may still pose a problem

Given the limitations—particularly those in Florida—people are turning to private events or party boats to keep the festivities going. Officials plan to crack down on boats that lack proper licenses or violate noise restrictions, however, and won’t be issuing any permits for special events in the central entertainment district. 

“If you are coming here with an anything-goes party attitude, change your flight reservation now and go to Vegas,” City Manager Raul Aguila said at a city council meeting discussing safety measures. “Miami Beach is not going to tolerate anarchy.” A 900-person pool party at a hotel was one of many requests that have been rejected.

Many nightclubs will remain closed due to safety measures and curfew putting a strain on the bottom line. The ones that remain open will likely be subject to jacked-up prices and long lines. Event promoter Ernesto White—who runs AM to PM Miami—has been busy working to circumvent the restrictions through pool, jet-ski, and boat parties, as well as other events at private locations and hotels. 

“My phone has not stopped ringing,” White told the Wall Street Journal. “South Beach is going to be jam-packed crazy.”

It’s too soon to say whether revelers can keep things in check and avoid another superspreader event like Spring Break 2020. Miami Beach hotel occupancy is expected to reach 70% in March 2021, nearly double the 43% occupancy reached in 2020. Rolando Aedo—chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, which collected the data—said the forecasted numbers may be unpredictable with people booking last-minute trips.

Another factor that may influence the outcome of Spring Break 2021 is, without the usual influx of college students, the median age of visitors may skew older. Spring Break 2021 may see a number of older revelers who have already been vaccinated.

“There are people that are comfortable with traveling at this point and there are some people that are not,” Hayes said. “What we want to do is if we’re reaching the people that are comfortable with traveling is to show them how we have a safe destination and make them feel comfortable coming here. So that is the folks that we want.”

Sources: Wall Street Journal, CBS News, New York Times, KRIS 6 NBC News

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