WATCH: With cheap flights and no travel restrictions, unmasked spring breakers descend on Florida
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By Hannah Sampson
Washington - After the fledgling pandemic forced an early end to Florida's annual spring break bacchanal in 2020, the state is wide open this time around.
Walt Disney World's four parks, operating at reduced capacity, have no more tickets available through March 25. Photos from popular beach destinations this month have shown large, occasionally raucous crowds of unmasked revellers. Over the weekend, Miami Beach police arrested 100 and pepper sprayed "unruly" spring breakers.
Flights are cheap. Travel restrictions are non-existent, and the state reopened its economy months ago.
Public health experts point out that spring break visitors are likely to be young and unvaccinated - and participants in high-risk behaviour like hanging out in bars and packed clubs.
"It's a perfect formula for spreading the disease," said Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "Even though we're doing much better now than we were several months ago with the incidence of covid-19, we're still at a level nationally that last summer we would have thought was alarmingly high."
The crowds descend as Florida has added another 31,603 coronavirus cases and 605 deaths in the past seven days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency said the state also leads the nation in reported cases caused by the variants that were first identified in the United Kingdom and Brazil.
"The state has relaxed nearly all of its restrictions and containment measures," Toner said. "And so there's every reason to think that there'll be high rates of transmission."
For Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, that all adds up to a "challenging" situation.
"People are coming here, I think, with the view that anything goes and that they haven't been able to let loose in a year," he said. "So why not come to the famous Miami Beach? It's just not gonna work if that's what they're coming for."
Across the state - a permissive place with no testing or quarantine requirements for visitors, no state mask mandate, and only some local restrictions on bars and restaurants - leaders in popular destinations are preparing for visitors with extra police, Covid safety reminders and a smattering of new rules. While tourist numbers aren't expected to reach pre-pandemic levels, especially since many universities have cancelled spring break, destinations are still expecting a busy few weeks.
Panama City Beach is restricting crowds to 125 people for events on the beach in March and closing a section of the sand at night in April, according to the Panama City News Herald. A Fort Lauderdale bar is limiting out-of-state visitors to age 23 and older this month. Miami Beach is putting capacity limits on some beaches and banning coolers, inflatable devices and tents on the sand.
Gelber said Friday that the city has "goodwill ambassadors" handing out masks, and police have made hundreds of arrests since this past month. Officials have been closing businesses that violate noise orders. Over the weekend, police body-slammed a man and shot pepper balls and pepper spray into a crowd that had formed around officers who were making an arrest; two officers were taken to the hospital. The city's message for visitors is "vacation responsibly or be arrested."
"I'm definitely not the mayor in Jaws," Gelber said. "I have to be honest with the community because it is a health and safety issue. I don't want our city to be a super spreader. I don't want our residents to have to worry and I don't want other communities to have to worry."
And in the St. Pete/Clearwater area on the Gulf Coast, tourism promoters are trying to encourage safe behaviour by dangling potential rewards. They are asking travellers to sign a pledge to wear a mask, keep a safe distance, wash their hands, and be patient and kind to hotel and restaurant workers, with the chance of winning a beach getaway. In popular tourist spots, "Sunshine Stewards" are handing out $25 gift cards to local businesses when they spot people following safety precautions.
Steve Hayes, the CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said the goal is to protect the local community while also reassuring visitors that they would be safe on vacation.
"Let's help people understand what we're doing here and what things are in place ... so that it can be safe for everybody - and then appeal to their sense of personal responsibility to make that happen," he said.
Cities don't have much of a choice beyond relying on visitors to do the right thing. Gov. Ron DeSantis has blocked city and county leaders from enforcing their own mask mandates. The state lifted capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars, clubs, entertainment venues and other businesses in September, and said public beaches should remain open.
Last year on March 19, the governor said in an interview with Fox & Friends that "the party's over in Florida."
That message would be unthinkable for a second year in a row, said Bob Rountree, co-founder of Florida Rambler, a site that covers outdoor recreation.
"It's not possible. There would be a march on the Capitol in Tallahassee," he said. "The economy of Florida is tourism."
Indeed, in a recent news conference, DeSantis reiterated his welcoming stance.
"Florida's open," he said. "And people can make decisions based on information."
Mary Jo Trepka, the chair of the department of epidemiology at Florida International University, wants people to have the right information. She said that while numbers have been decreasing since highs in January, they are still not ideal, with Miami-Dade seeing about 1,000 new cases a day.
"People think this is behind us, but it's not," she said.
She urged anyone in Florida to avoid large groups and especially places where people aren't wearing masks.
"People should spread out," she said. "If people want to enjoy Florida, do it outdoors."