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Spring break surge in Tampa Bay boosts economy – and COVID concerns

Tampa International Airport expects between 40,000 and 60,000 passengers each day during the next several weeks.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It’s March, and that means spring break is here. 

The coronavirus pandemic is ongoing, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing down visitors who are flocking to Florida in droves, and that has some public health experts concerned.

On Monday afternoon, Bay-area beaches were packed. With the exception of a handful of warning signs and an occasional face mask, you hardly know we were still in the middle of a pandemic.

“I think it’s just a risk you gotta take, you know?” visitor Austin Strick said. “Gotta have fun every once in a while, but take the precautions when you get home.”

Spring break is in full swing and Florida is a top destination thanks to a combination of warm weather, an open economy, no COVID test to travel domestically and few, if any, restrictions requiring COVID tests to visit.

“If you come to the airport, you’ll see it looks a little like a normal airport again compared with last spring break,” Tampa International Airport spokesperson Emily Nipps said.

The airport says there is little doubt crowds are coming. Passenger bookings are up for the next four to six weeks. And while not back to pre-COVID levels, it's far busier than last year.

“We think on average anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 passengers a day is what we’ll see,” Nipps said.

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In some parts of the state, there are curfews and public mask orders, but not in Tampa Bay.

In spots like Clearwater, they have put reminders online, posted signs at the beach and plan to conduct bar and restaurant checks.

“Frankly, our economy could use a little bit of a boost,” said Dr. Michael Teng, a physician with USF Public Health, “But, you don’t wanna have it at the cost of more Floridians’ lives.”

Public health workers say it’s a concern, and not just for Florida. People bringing COVID variants here from all across the country will eventually head home.

“The thing that I’m more kind of concerned about,” said Teng, “these people are coming here and kind of congregating and mixing all the viruses together and sending them back.”

Still, most spring break activities are outdoors, as were recent Super Bowl celebrations. Public health officials were worried that event would lead to a local spike but it hasn’t.

So maybe, they say, we’ve learned some things since last year’s spring break when people didn’t realize just how bad it could and would get.

“I think we will see a little uptick afterwards. I think the major decline that we’ve seen after the holidays starting to plateau out,” Teng said. “So, now I think we’re going to start maybe start to bump up again. But hopefully, we can keep it down.”

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