As Florida struggles to recover from the coronavirus crisis, the heart of the state’s tourism sector still ails badly.
Orange County reported Monday that its tourist development tax proceeds continue a steady rise from the near-total collapse in the spring. Yet, the improvements are slow, and the activity remains less than half of normal.
September’s receipts, marking the end of the county’s fiscal year, were 60% lower than September 2019. Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond reported receipts of $7,037,700 for September. That compares with about $17.8 million collected in September 2019.
September historically is the worst month for tourism, with the theme parks going into post-Labor Day back-to-school gear and conventions not terribly popular.
The 2020 fiscal year had started so well, with Orange County topping record amounts seen in each of the first five months from October 2019 through February 2020. The coronavirus crisis hit in March, shutting down the tourist industry and scaring travelers. Orange County’s tourist taxes fell by half. In April, the county lost 97% of its tourist tax receipts compared with 2019.
Orange County collects far more tourist tax than any other county in Florida. Orange is rivaled nationally by very few places, such as Las Vegas, which all have different formulas for such taxes, and therefore present only apples-to-oranges comparisons.
Typically, Orange County’s tourist tax collection is just under 30% of all the tourist taxes collected in the entire state of Florida.
“Looking forward to this year’s collections, there are definite signs of hope,” Diamond said in a news release announcing the latest collections.
“Even though we are still well below pre-pandemic levels, collections have increased every month since April. Travel has been incrementally increasing since April as travelers are becoming more comfortable with safety protocols and our region’s relatively low COVID-19 positivity rate and new case numbers. An important factor is that we haven’t had widespread reported instances of virus outbreak at the theme parks because of strict safety protocols. Longer-term, today’s news from Pfizer about the development of a COVID-19 vaccine is encouraging and welcome,” he stated.
Still, it has been a brutal year, reflected in the unemployment rates for Orange County and adjacent Osceola County, home to a large proportion of Central Florida’s tourism workforce. The unemployment rate for Orange County was 10.4% in September, according to the latest reports from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. For Osceola County, the rate was 13.3%.
For the fiscal year, Orange County’s tourist tax collections totaled $167,386,000, compared to last year’s collections of $283,998,400. So, for the year, collections fell by $116,612,400 — a 41.1% decrease, Diamond reported.