AAA says travelers will stay close to home this Memorial Day

Clearwater Beach south of Pier 60 looks crowded in this photo taken at noon May 9, although Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says an aerial view shows it wasn’t too bad. Still, some of the parking lots in the area had to be closed to manage the crowds. He recommends that people plan their trips using the beach capacity dashboard and to arrive early. The dashboard will be active from 1 p.m. Friday, May 22, through Memorial Day on May 25.

AAA says fewer people are likely to take a trip this Memorial Day weekend due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, so for the first time in 20 years, the auto club is not issuing a travel forecast.

Instead, AAA is using informal reports to predict that less people will take a trip to mark the unofficial start of the summer travel season.

“Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend — the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes in 2000,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low.”

Memorial Day 2009 holds the record for the lowest travel volume.

However, AAA predicts that people will begin to travel again by later summer and fall.

“Already, there are indications that Americans’ wanderlust is inspiring them to plan future vacations,” AAA said in a press release.

AAA reports that its online bookings have been rising “modestly” since mid-April. AAA predicts that when people deem it is safe to travel, they will likely head to U.S. destinations.

Those predictions are echoed by local tourism experts who say Floridians will likely make up the bulk of vacationers in Pinellas County this summer.

In a March AAA Travel survey, 90% of the 173 million Americans who had summer vacations on the books had planned to take a U.S.-based vacation.

“The saying goes that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Americans are taking that first step toward their next journey from the comfort of their home by researching vacation opportunities and talking with travel agents,” said Twidale. “We are seeing that Americans are showing a preference and inspiration to explore all that our country has to offer as soon as it is safe to travel.”

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism marketing agency, has been posting vacation ideas along with virtual experiences on its website for the last couple of months with its Brighter Days Ahead campaign.

For information on planning a vacation in Pinellas, visit https://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/.

Pinellas expecting big crowds on the beach

The county’s beaches are open and law enforcement will be on hand over the Memorial Day weekend to enforce social distancing requirements. Beachgoers must keep to groups of 10 or less spaced 6 feet apart.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri advises that some parts of the beach may be closed if they get too crowded.

The sheriff’s beach capacity dashboard will be open from 1 p.m. Friday, May 22, through Memorial Day, May 25, at https://www.pcsoweb.com/beachcapacity. The dashboard provides hourly updates on beach capacity, as well as information on parking lots, beach access areas, bridges and roadways.

The sheriff plans to make cards that advertise the dashboard for hoteliers to pass out to their guests.

He advises those who plan go to the beach to use the dashboard before leaving and to go early.

The sheriff’s office used the dashboard the first weekend after Pinellas County opened its beaches on May 4. Gualtieri told county commissioners during a meeting on May 14 that the dashboard received more than 166,000 views with 25,000 occurring between 9-11 a.m. on May 9. The sheriff said many of those hits had come from eastern Hillsborough County and the city of Brandon.

On Memorial Day weekend, 300 deputies and police officers will be on the beach, at access points and in parking lots from Fred Howard Beach in Tarpon Springs to Fort De Soto in Tierra Verde.

“Our No. 1 priority is for people to come to the beaches, enjoy themselves and patronize the businesses,” he said. “But when it gets to the point there is no room” people will be redirected to other areas.

By no room, the sheriff means to maintain social distancing.

For tips on visiting the beach responsibly, visit https://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/tips-for-visiting-responsibly-st-peteclearwater.

Gas prices are down

For those who decide to take a road trip, gas prices should not be a deterrent, although prices have been on the rise in recent days.

According to AAA, the national average price for a gallon of unleaded was $1.88 on May 18, compared to $2.85 on that same date last year.

In Florida, the average price was $1.77, compared to $2.65 last year. In the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area, the pump price was $1.71, compared to $2.59 last year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that Americans stay home and avoid nonessential travel. AAA says Americans should heed all official warnings and refer to the latest updates from the CDC and U.S. Department of State to help decrease the spread of COVID-19.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.