Struggling Florida Panhandle towns face tough reopening decisions

Mexico Beach in 2013. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Vince Bishop wears many hats in his community of Cape San Blas, Florida, part of a narrow peninsula that reaches into the Gulf of Mexico. He co-owns Scallop Republic, a bar that supports local musicians; he operates eight vacation rentals; and he’s the chief of South Gulf County Fire and Rescue, which is fully run by volunteers.

When Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle in October 2018, storm surge carved a new pass of water into the peninsula and leveled homes across the Cape. It blew part of the roof off of Bishop’s house. “We were out of it for five months,” he said.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane — with the bar shuttered and few outsiders coming in — Bishop said he “did not have any income.” Still, he and his fellow volunteer firefighters distributed food and water to their neighbors as the area slowly recovered. Last summer, only a few vacation rentals were available because so many had been damaged, which meant fewer tourists came to town. Business was down at Bishop’s bar. He said it wasn’t until this February that their numbers increased and things started to return to normal.

“Then COVID-19 shut us down,” he said.

In a state that relies on tourism, especially to help communities build back after natural disasters, the coronavirus pandemic has put Panhandle officials in a pickle. Visitors bring in much-needed dollars to keep local economies afloat, which is especially crucial now as the state is losing massive tax revenue. But opening the area back up to tourism also poses a major risk during the pandemic: Travelers could bring the virus with them.

As of June 2, Gulf County has only had two confirmed cases of COVID-19. Bishop fears that could soon change. “As more and more tourists start coming in and out, we’re going to start seeing some more cases,” he said. “I hope not, but I can’t see that not happening.”

In mid-March, just as the coronavirus started to spread in the U.S., spring breakers packed Florida beaches. Many local governments closed them down in the following weeks or set restrictions for public parking and hours of use to limit beach traffic. The state also ordered a ban on vacation rentals in late March. But last month, both state and local entities began easing those rules. According to Florida Politics’ tracking of beach re-openings, nearly all Panhandle county beaches had fully reopened as of early May. Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ re-opening task force — made up of tourism industry leaders and no public health officials — suggested he wait longer before allowing vacation rentals to operate again, but he has permitted counties wanting to reopen vacation rentals to apply to do so. Many have already been approved. All counties’ plans are required to ban travelers coming from hotspot regions, like New York and Louisiana.

But Panhandle beaches are seeing busy starts to the summer season. “To be quite frank with you, Memorial Day weekend, you wouldn’t know there was a pandemic,” said Al Cathey, mayor of Mexico Beach, which is up the coast from Cape San Blas and was hit hard by Hurricane Michael. “That’s concerning to me. We have not had one recorded case in Mexico Beach. I hope that letting people come into town and use our beach doesn’t backfire on us.”

Experts say beach-going can be safe as long as people stay socially distanced. However, a massive influx of out-of-town visitors to small-town grocery stores, gas stations, and public restrooms are a cause of concern. An outbreak would put even more strain on small Panhandle towns just as this year’s hurricane season begins. Bishop’s volunteer fire department doubles as a medical first-responder unit, since it can often take ambulances over 20 minutes to reach the Cape. He said that when the vacation rental ban went into effect, many owners of rental properties came down with their families from out of state. Some of those visitors had pre-existing medical conditions and called for assistance, and Bishop’s department took those calls, “putting our first responders in close contact with people coming in from areas of the country that had much higher numbers of COVID-19 than our count.”

He worries something similar could happen this summer. “Our hospital only has 19 beds and two ventilators,” he said. “Please don’t tax our system.” Bishop has 15 regular, active volunteers. “If we lose one person, that’s a big percentage of our department right there.”

South Gulf County Fire and Rescue held a water rescue training while the local beaches were closed due to the pandemic. Photo courtesy South Gulf County Fire and Rescue

Bishop was able to procure loans from the federal paycheck protection program and disaster loans to pay employees of Scallop Republic and cleaning staff for his vacation rentals. He’s been slammed with requests, and is almost completely booked through the summer, so his next priority is keeping his cleaning staff as safe as possible. He’s also been finding creative ways to keep musicians playing at the bar while it’s closed. In the last few weeks, Scallop Republic has had musicians perform on its deck while audience members sit in their cars, buying growlers of beer to take home and tipping the musicians.

Things are different in Mexico Beach, which still doesn’t have a gas station or a full-service grocery store, Casey said. In many ways, the town didn’t need to change its behavior when the pandemic came; it was still shut down from Hurricane Michael. It needs the income from tourism to recover. “There’s sort of a trade-off between rebuilding, and when there’s going to be a customer base to support that business,” Casey said. Officials like him know that there’s a trade-off in bringing that customer base to town, too.

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.

This story was supported by a COVID-19 reporting grant from the Lenfest Institute, Facebook Journalism Project, and the Local Media Association.