Florida 'leading the way,' Vice President Mike Pence says in talk with state tourism leaders
ORLANDO, Fla. — Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday praised Florida’s phased-in plan for restarting its economy in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, saying the state is “leading the way” in its effort to balance safety with the need to reopen businesses.
“Because of the choices you’ve made, the truth is that we’ve stopped the spread, we’ve flattened the curve, we’ve saved lives,” Pence said in the opening moments of a roundtable discussion with Gov. Ron DeSantis and leaders of the state’s tourism industry at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando.
At the same time, Pence also acknowledged that businesses in the state’s tourism-based economy have been hit hard by closures tied to restrictions from government and health care officials to stem the spread of the virus, reports The Daytona Beach News-Journal, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
“The decisions you’ve made to put the health of your employees first and the health of people from all over the world who come to visit were unprecedented,” he said, praising the “undeniable” sacrifices of working families. “In a very big way, Florida has led the way.”
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Roundtable participants also included U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia; Harris Rosen, president and chief operating officer of Rosen Hotels & Resorts in Orlando; George Kalogridis, president of segment development and enrichment for the Walt Disney Co.; Marc Swanson, interim chief executive officer of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment; and John Sprouls, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Universal Parks & Resorts.
Over more than 90 minutes, the discussion ranged from reopening strategies for Central Florida’s theme parks to issues faced by hoteliers, restaurateurs and transportation companies reliant on tourism.
“I appreciate the determination and tenacity I’ve heard in your voices,” Pence said. “You’re absolutely determined in a safe and sensible way to reopen America.”
Rosen, one of Central Florida’s most influential hoteliers, inspired applause from roughly a hundred or so industry observers seated at social distance in the room for his remarks that the path to reopening was simpler than an evolving list of guidelines and restrictions.
“We want everybody back to work as quickly as possible,” Rosen said. “How do we do that? You screen every customer, every client, every guest that comes into your facility. Every single day, you screen every single one of your employees. It’s that simple.
“The hospitality industry is in a depression, but there’s hope for it,” he said.
As a result of restrictions and guidelines by government public health officials to prevent spread of the coronavirus, the worldwide tourism industry has faced a catastrophic downturn in the wake of the pandemic.
In Florida, the pandemic virtually shut down the state’s spring tourism industry, causing Major League Baseball to halt its spring training, Walt Disney World and other theme parks to close and public officials to take the unprecedented step of telling spring breakers to go home to reduce the spread of the virus.
For the month of April, sales tax revenues statewide are about $773 million below the state’s $3.1 billion estimate, according to the Florida Department of Revenue.
State tourism marketing officials have said that it could take several years for Florida’s tourism industry to rebound to pre-coronavirus numbers.
DeSantis announced last week that theme parks could begin submitting reopening plans as part of his phased-in plan to restart the state’s economy. At the roundtable, leaders of the area’s major theme parks said they were eager to put those reopening plans into action.
DeSantis on Wednesday touted low numbers of coronavirus cases statewide that support the plan to reopen the state’s economy in a “safe, step-by-step approach.”
“Now we’re in a much better spot and I think we have the ability to come back,” he said.
Florida’s COVID-19 death toll topped 2,000 Tuesday, underscoring the serious threat still posed by the coronavirus. At the same time, DeSantis faced a controversy tied to the state’s tracking of the virus.
Rebekah Jones, a data expert at the Florida Department of Health, said that she was fired because she refused to manually manipulate coronavirus data to help make the case for reopening Florida, an accusation DeSantis played down as a “nonissue” at a news conference on Tuesday.
In Volusia County, hoteliers reported occupancy rates in the single-digit range in April, fueling concerns that the downturn might affect the key summer tourist season.
“It’s a different world, a different atmosphere,” said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County said at the time. “Everything is going to change.”
As the state’s beaches have reopened to all activities, the outlook for Memorial Day and the summer has brightened a bit. Some beachside hotels in Daytona Beach were sold out for the upcoming holiday weekend, Davis said.