Will stimulus checks be funding Florida vacations? Maybe, in part, say local experts

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

MIRAMAR BEACH —  There are some very early indications that people might be starting to use their latest federal stimulus checks for spring getaways or summer vacations in Northwest Florida.

But unlike the view expressed by the guy who screeched his golf cart into a parking spot alongside the beach on Scenic Gulf Drive on a recent afternoon, smiling and marveling at "everybody down here with their stimulus checks," it's more likely that those dollars, if they are being or will be used, are helping to enhance rather than fully fund those trips, according to local experts.

Under terms of the American Rescue Plan Act, a wide-ranging $1.9 trillion effort to address the economic impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that became law earlier this month, $1,400 checks are being sent to a wide swath of Americans.

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Beachgoers enjoy a mild day on Okaloosa Island. Although vacation bookings are up, it's not necessarily because people are receiving their government stimulus checks.

The checks represent the third round of economic stimulus checks sent to qualified households since the pandemic began last year. The first round of checks were for $1,200, with a second round of checks issued at $600.  

The latest checks are going out to qualified adults and dependents, meaning that a family of four could get $5,600 in stimulus payments. Households with earnings of more than $80,000 for single federal income tax filers, $120,000 for head-of-household filers, and $160,000 for married couples filing a joint tax return will not receive a payment.

Youths descend stairs from a condominium complex to get to the beach on Okaloosa Island. Although vacation bookings are up along the Emerald Coast, it isn't clear if that is solely because of government stimulus checks.

The first batch of third-round checks went out March 12, mostly by direct deposit, the day after President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law. A second batch of checks was sent out or deposited directly on March 22, and the IRS announced at that time that it anticipates sending the money out subsequently on a weekly basis to qualified recipients.

People interested in when and where their stimulus checks are being mailed or deposited can go online to https://www.irs.gov/coronavirus/get-my-payment for an update.

Jeanne Dailey, the founder, CEO and sole owner of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties Inc., a major local vacation rental operator, said Tuesday that her office had just that day received a reservations call from someone saying that their stimulus check was why they booked a vacation.

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But Dailey was hesitant to guess the degree in which the latest round of checks is, or will be, funding vacations for people who are clearly eager to get out of the house in states across the country as coronavirus-related restrictions have lifted in Florida.

"The checks just went out," she said, adding that "it may be too early to hear" whether people are using the money for vacations. 

"Maybe it (the stimulus checks either already in, or coming to, bank accounts) encouraged them even more" to book a vacation, Dailey went on to guess Tuesday.

A vacationer tries to get a child's kite airborne on Okaloosa Island.

For most people booking a vacation in Northwest Florida, the stimulus checks likely are an income boost that could allow them to have an improved getaway, according to Dailey.

"It's just manna from heaven for them," she said, suggesting that with the extra money, "maybe they'll upgrade" their accommodations.

David Demarest, director of marketing and communications for the Walton County Tourist Development Council, has a view similar to Dailey on the role of stimulus checks to bring visitors to the area.

Demarest said it would be difficult to track whether people are coming to Walton County as a result of receiving or anticipating their stimulus checks. He added that in terms of the higher-end accommodations available, a $1,400 check wouldn't make much difference in a decision to vacation in the area.

For Dailey and Demarest, current and upcoming visits to the area are, in fact, being driven by coronavirus relief, but not necessarily in terms of government checks. Both said this week that a significant uptick in vacation bookings reflects a different kind of coronavirus relief — a desire of people and families across the country to get out of the house.

"We know they're coming, and we know that more of them are coming," Demarest said.

Vacation occupancy rates in Walton County for March were up 19% compared to March 2019, Demarest said, and occupancy rates for April are, as of this week, 21% above the same month in 2019.

Because 2020 was an "outlier" year as the coronavirus pandemic shut down vacation rentals in the early part of the year's tourist season, 2019 offers a better comparison for occupancy rates, Demarest explained.

A girl skim cords in the shallow water on Okaloosa Island.

"People are just so excited about getting out of the house," said Dailey.

As business is booming for Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, Dailey said an interesting indication that people are exercising their pent-up demand for time away from home-based coping with the coronavirus is evident on the rear bumpers of cars.  

In her driving across the area, Dailey said she's spotted license plates from Illinois, Michigan, New York and even California, places she said "are not in our normal bell curve" of states from which residents elect to vacation in Northwest Florida.

A quick Wednesday drive through the parking lot at the Miramar Regional Beach Access bore out Dailey's point. Cars displayedg license plates from a couple states she mentioned, along with Wisconsin and Minnesota.

But beachgoers at the regional beach access also reflected the view that stimulus dollars are not, at least right now, funding their vacations. They did, however, reflect Dailey's point that people are simply eager to get out of town.

Tourists pose for a photo at the beach on Okaloosa Island. Although vacation bookings are up along the Emerald Coast, it is unclear how large of a role government stimulus checks have played.

For instance, Jim Simpson of Indianapolis is staying at the beach with 19 members of his extended family, finally taking the Northwest Florida vacation they had planned to take at this time last year, as coronavirus prompted the Walton County government to shut down local beaches just before a state decision to halt vacation rentals.

"When the beaches were shut down, we said, 'Let's be smart,' " Simpson said, and the family abandoned its plans. For this year, Simpson said stimulus checks are playing no role in the vacation, not even in terms of upgrades or other enhancements.

The story was the same for Rick Greenfield and his wife, Peggy, visiting Miramar Beach from Chicago. Before heading home Tuesday, they'll spend a couple of days at Seaside with other family members.

"We just wanted to get out of town," Rick Greenfield said, noting that the federal stimulus dollars weren't a factor in the decision.

"We were coming no matter what," Peggy Greenfield chuckled.