Uncertainty reaches a new level in Bay County due to COVID-19

Special Reports

BAY COUNTY Fla. (WMBB) — What is typically a crowded getaway spot, became a place where you heard nothing but the waves.

“In the month of March, half our business evaporated and then when the beaches shut down in april, the tourist development tax collections which represent the lodging revenues in the community were down by 85 percent,” said Dan Rowe, Executive Director of the Tourist Development Council. 

According to the Bay County tourist development council, from March to May the county lost around 68 million dollars in lodging revenue. That’s about 165 million dollars in direct visitor spending – money that small local businesses rely on to survive.

“This is about the livelihoods of hard working bay county residents,” said Rowe. “You know the people who are working everyday just to put a roof over their heads and have a good life. So that visitor spending just helps fuel our economy.”

Businesses in Bay County have been hit across the board, but the restaurant industry was forced to make big changes and tough decisions after the governor ordered dining rooms closed in March.

Local restaurant owner Dave Trepanier owns Firefly in Panama City Beach. He said hearing that news gave him anxiety.

“It was a little scary, you know we didn’t really know what was going to happen, we didn’t really know what was going to be in place to help business owners out,” said Trepanier. “Just the fear of not knowing not only for me but for my staff was a pretty uneasy time.”

Firefly did to-go orders throughout March and April and they were finally able to welcome back customers in May when the governor allowed restaurants to open with a limited capacity.

Trepanier said even then  his business wasn’t bringing in nearly as much money as last summer.

“I went ahead and borrowed money anyways because nobody was sure how long this was going to last and when this is your livelihood and the livelihood of 65 other people, failure was just not an option,” said Trepanier. 

He said having to dip into his savings was not ideal.Trepanier said it was a scary moment for him because that isn’t what that money was meant for.

“You know, that’s money for my girls’ college and stuff for the house and christmas and weddings and stuff like that,” said Trepanier. “So yeah when you are dipping into that money to keep your restaurant afloat and you don’t know when it is going to open back up and it’s not a small amount of money to keep this place running.”

Trepanier said if this pandemic and the last two years has taught him anything it is to always be prepared for the unknown and to have a few years of savings put away for a rainy day. The unexpected can happen and throw just about any business for a loop.

Other popular tourist attractions like Shipwreck Island Waterpark and Ripley’s: Believe It or Not faced struggles as well.

This summer was slow for the attractions because of unexpected closures and capacity limitations.

During the season where the lines are typically wrapped around the park at Shipwreck, the park saw a low attendance rate until Labor Day weekend.

Over at Ripley’s general manager Drew Morales said their lack of business caused a different set of issues.

“We had to furlow and lay off workers so getting back to the normal routine and getting everyone hired back is nice so we can get so we can get them their jobs back and their hours back,” said Morales.

But as we start to grasp this pandemic the question remains – what will the future hold?

Rowe said the area is better off than other destinations because of the loyal visitors who still came to see the world’s most beautiful beaches.

“Now we don’t know what the future is going to hold for the snowbird business, because we know our canadian friends will not be able to travel and will not be able to travel here and others if they are at risk for travel they may decide to stay home instead of coming to the beach,” said Rowe. 

Rowe said the TDC’s campaign is focused on “now” – he says “come to the beach today.”

Rowe says although the future is uncertain, he believes bay county is ready to take it on because we have done it time and time again.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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