The surveys also provide a look at the human cost of operating restrictions imposed on local businesses — some of which remain shuttered under terms of a statewide plan for a phased reopening as numbers indicate some control has been gained over COVID-19, while others are operating at reduced capacity.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Recent surveys of businesses in South Walton County on the impact of COVID-19 indicate that direct spending by tourists could be down by nearly $2 billion by the end of August if current restrictions on business aimed at slowing the spread of the serious respiratory illness remain in place.

The surveys also provide a look at the human cost of operating restrictions imposed on local businesses — some of which remain shuttered under terms of a statewide plan for a phased reopening as numbers indicate some control has been gained over COVID-19, while others are operating at reduced capacity.

According to the surveys, as many as 15,000 local jobs could be lost by August if conditions remain unchanged for Walton County.

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Results of the surveys are based on two separate canvassing efforts involving local businesses. More than 160 businesses responded to a first round of surveys on March 19, with 220 businesses responding to a second wave of surveys on April 15.

The work, by Tallahassee-based Downs & St. Germain Research, was done as part of a statewide look at the effects of COVID-19 on the tourism industry, but some of the work in Walton County was done on a pro bono basis, according to Phillip Downs, author of the study. The survey response rate in Walton County was the highest of any county in Florida, Downs added.

Currently, according to the study, “only 3% of tourism businesses in Walton County are operating at full capacity.”

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And while 71% of the county’s tourism businesses have applied for federal COVID-19-related assistance — such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which helps affected businesses maintain their payroll and hire back laid-off workers — only 30% of businesses have received any of that funding, according to the study.

“Continued restrictions on restaurants, retail establishments and short-term rentals negatively affect the tourism industry’s ability to recover” from the slide, the study goes on to note.

And while there have been some reductions in those restrictions, such as restaurants and retail being allowed to open at 25% of capacity — rising to 50% on Monday, according to a Friday announcement from Gov. Ron DeSantis — Walton County is facing a unique challenge on the road to recovery.

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Across the state, most counties have a 50-50 mix of short-term vacation rental housing (including third-party providers like Airbnb and Vrbo), according to Downs. But in Walton County, 87% of accommodations are in short-term vacation rental spaces, as evidenced by the lines of condominiums lining area beaches and nearby roads.

“We are a different county in how we operate, in how we are populated” with regard to tourism, said David Demarest, communications director for the county government’s Walton County Tourist Development Council.

Short-term rentals have been shuttered since late March under an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis that differentiates them from hotels, motels, resorts and inns, painting them as attractive options for people fleeing from locations where COVID-19-related restrictions have resulted in the enactment of stay-at-home orders.

Vacation rental property owners, along with state and local lawmakers, have been pushing the governor to lift the ban on short-term rentals.

And on Friday, as he announced the further lifting of COVID-19-related restrictions, DeSantis said counties could submit plans, including safety components, for reopening short-term vacation rentals to the state for approval.

Walton County already has a framework in place for a plan to reopen short-term vacation rentals, Louis Svehla, the county’s public information manager, said in a Friday email.

According to Svehla, the county is waiting for the required guidance from the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates sort-term vacation rentals.

“With those guidelines in hand, we will compare them with our prepared plan to ensure that it complies with the DPBR guidelines,” Svehla said in a Friday email.

In the meantime, Svehla said, the county is “working closely with our Tallahassee lobbyist and the Governor’s office to facilitate this process and to move our plan through the system as rapidly as possible.”

As the recent survey of businesses shows, the short-term vacation rental ban is having devastating effects on tourism-related businesses, noted Demarest.

While there has been some loosening of COVID-19-related restrictions in Walton County — the statewide partial reopening of restaurants and retail, and a recent county commission decision to reopen beaches to vendors offering chairs, umbrellas, kayaks, beach photography and other goods and services — those changes matter little as long as the short-term vacation rental ban remains in effect, according to Demarest.

“It’s not going to matter if there are no customers,” Demarest said.

The timing of the state and local COVID-19 restrictions is particularly problematic, Demarest added, in that they began coming along in early spring, as businesses were gearing up for tourist season.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Demarest said, as businesses were just emerging from the “skinny season” of winter.

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Spring is a time of increasing revenue for tourist-related businesses, but Demarest said “that summer season is always going to be head and shoulders above the rest.”

The Downs & St. Germain Research study was attached to a recent letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis from the Walton County Board of County Commissioners urging him to lift the ban on short-term vacation rentals.

“We have conducted two consecutive economic surveys ... and currently 35 percent of all our tourism-related businesses have laid off 80 percent of their employees ...,” the letter notes.

“It is projected that if conditions continue unchanged for another two months,” the letter continues, “42 percent of all tourism businesses in Walton County will be forced to shut their doors permanently.”

According to Demarest, the letter from the county commissioners, with the study attached, was intended in part to prompt the governor to consider a regional approach to reopening the state as COVID-19-related restrictions are eased.

In Demarest’s estimation, DeSantis seems to be “a governor much more likely to be swayed by data” than more emotional arguments for easing COVID-19 restrictions. That assessment appears to have been borne out in DeSantis’ Friday announcement that counties can submit plans for reopening short-term vacation rentals.

Beyond the direct consequences to businesses and workers, the economic slowdown associated with COVID-19 in Walton County also has significant consequences for county government operations.

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“Annually, visitors to Walton County pay more than 67 percent of all county taxes generated,” the letter to DeSantis notes.

The county’s new fiscal year begins in October, but according to Melissa Thomason, the county government’s finance director, “(c)ounty departments are already reviewing current year expenses and looking at savings that can be realized from vacant positions and expenses that can be deferred.”

Also during the current fiscal year, Thomason said, “The county-wide impact will be seen primarily in the decrease in sales and gas tax revenues.”

“We expect revenues to pick up with the re-opening of retail stores and the expanded dining services that can be offered in restaurants,” she added. But Thomason, like other county officials, not to mention the county’s business owners, is also focused on what might happen with the ban on short-term vacation rentals.

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“When the short-term rental ban is lifted,” Thomason said, “we expect to see sales and gas tax revenues continue to rise. The speed at which Walton County’s economy can get back to a normal level of operation will determine the impact of COVID-19 on next year’s budget.”

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation is to provide guidelines for such plans. Walton County has developed a reopening plan framework and is awaiting the guidelines from the DPBR.

With those guideline in hand, we will compare them with our prepared plan to ensure that it complies with the DPBR guidelines.

We are working closely with our Tallahassee lobbyist and the Governor’s office to facilitate this process and to move our plan through the system as rapidly as possible.