Spring break season is underway at Pensacola Beach, and runs through mid-April for local schools, and until the end of April for others.
Allison Westmoreland is President of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce says local merchants are keeping their fingers crossed for that record crowd on beaches, and in stores and restaurants.
“A lot of the hotels are already booking up,” said Westmoreland. “Social media is huge right now, so even just sharing one event on social media gets 10,000 views. I think that’s going to attract a lot of people in as well.”
Pensacola Beach could have an advantage stemming from alcohol bans on beaches in Panama City and Gulf Shores. The drinking rules on Santa Rosa Island are somewhat more visitor-friendly. The Escambia County Commission approved trial alcohol restrictions in 2015, which are set to expire in June. Supporters want to make them permanent.
“With the ordinance, you don’t have open containers with people walking around the drinks; they’re keeping them inside [bars and restaurants] because we don’t want them in the parking lot,” said Westmoreland. “We only allow it on the sandy part of the beach, out at Casino Beach in the front, not on the right side of the pier.”
Restrictions on drinking at Panama City Beach in 2015 resulted in an $18 million hit to Bay County during 2016 spring break. But Zach Jenkins, Director of the Haas Business Center at the University of West Florida, says the ban’s results were something of a surprise.
“Probably a couple of reasons for that; press coverage [and] obviously social media spread the message very quickly,” Jenkins said. “I think changes to the alcohol policy are going to have a much more dramatic effects than the changes, because we serve a different tourist over here during March. More families and more the day trippers.”
And while it likely will be another banner year for revenue, Jenkins says it appears the spring break economy may be losing a bit of steam.
“The March spending from 2011-12-13 you were seeing a lot of growth – about 5-10 percent each year,” said Jenkins. “But then in recent years we’ve seen we’ve seen a little slower growth. We know why Bay County’s dropped dramatically in 2016, but even some of the other counties that we saw were essentially at 2013 levels.”
Putting aside the business part, spring break is about fun – but there are calls to play it safe when out on the sand and in the surf. Dave Greenwood, Pensacola Beach’s Public Safety Director, expects another big spring break crowd in 2017, and is hoping for a less busy time for his lifeguards. Almost 600 rescues were made in 2016, and there were four deaths.
“Pay attention to the surf; it may look beautiful and inviting, but it’s still a natural environment and you have to respect nature,” said Greenwood. “Pay attention to the surf, the flags are green, yellow, and red. Yellow means use moderate caution; currents are present with a yellow flag. Red flag is no swimming or wading.”
The lifeguards returned to the beach on March 1. A new group of 16 lifeguards, selected from tryouts in January, are going through training for the upcoming summer season. Greenwood says another tryout is set for March 25 at the UWF pool.
One of the major points Greenwood wants to drive home will all lifeguard candidates is that this is not the country club. The Gulf of Mexico is open water, and a whole different ballgame.
“This is surf lifesaving, and there is potential that you could deal with death out here,” Greenwood said. “We want everybody to realize that and go in there with eyes wide open that this is a serious job and a serious position.”
West Florida is leading off the spring break period this week. They’ll be followed by the University of South Alabama, Escambia and Santa Rosa County School Districts, Pensacola State College, and the school districts in Baldwin and Mobile Counties.