Like most cities where tourism fuels the economy, Orlando was hit hard by the pandemic.
The theme parks shut down for months in 2020. The restaurants and hotels which once served millions of tourists a year were quiet. The smaller businesses were hurt too. The airport slowed down to a grind. Thousands of employees were temporarily out of work.
Now, the University of Central Florida (UCF) is starting a $4.5 million research project that educators believe will help the next time a pandemic strikes. The research is a collaboration of faculty members across UCF with a wide range of expertises. Their effort brings together professors from UCF’s medical school and the hospitality and engineering colleges plus other areas.
In a press release, UCF spelled out the three main goals for its new Infectious Disease and Travel Health Initiative: Faculty members want “to create an advance warning system through its data collection methods” and develop “a resource for small to medium-sized businesses in tourist areas to help them manage future health crisis situations that may arise.” They also want “to bring travelers and those who serve them closer to science, bridging the gap between basic science and behavioral science.”
“It is very difficult to prevent pandemics, but what we can do is we can help communities be better prepared,” said UCF hospitality professor Robertico Croes, who is helping lead the project.
The UCF researchers are based in Orlando — the travel capital of the country.
“Florida is a major tourist destination, as well as an international corridor to the United States,” said Taj Azarian, an assistant professor at the UCF Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences who is involved in the project. Azarian investigates the spread of bacterial infectious diseases.
Croes said he hopes their work can eventually expand nationally.
UCF’s Infectious Disease and Travel Health Initiative will be a multiyear project, Croes said, with the opportunity to hire at least eight to 10 more faculty members in addition to letting graduate students participate too.
“We will approach potential benefactors who are also interested in these types of initiatives to assist us with additional resources,” Croes said. “That’s part of the process.”
The project’s initial $4.5 million funding is from a pot of money of up to $50 million the university has set aside in its budget for, said school spokesman Chad Binette.
“The funding for the collaborative research project comes from the UCF Strategic Investment Program, supporting President Alexander Cartwright’s vision that UCF will become a ‘University for the Future’ as a top public institution and the world’s leading public metropolitan research university,” UCF said in a press release.