Hotel taxes inched up again in September, the final month of a fiscal year which witnessed a historic crash of Orange County’s tourism economy crippled by a pandemic which continues to grip not only the region, but the nation and the world.
Revenue from the county’s levy on short-term lodging totaled $7.03 million in September, up from $5.78 million in August but a far cry from the $17.7 million collected in September 2019 when tourists packed theme parks to experience adventures and attractions built around Star Wars, Toy Story and boy wizard Harry Potter.
This year’s total collections were once expected to hit a record of nearly $300 million, but once the pandemic took hold fell to a different record, instead. Total collections amounted to just $167.3 million compared to $284 million last year.
“That’s the biggest year-over-year decrease in the history of the tax,” said Orange Comptroller Phil Diamond.
Officials said said there was a bright spot to be found in September’s increase over August and decreased expenses — particularly a halt on spending for a planned expansion to the Orange County Convention Center — which means the county is now drawing down its reserve fund at a slower clip and one Diamond called more “sustainable.”
“There are really definite signs of hope,” he said. “We’ve increased every month since April. Travel has been increasing as travelers become more comfortable with safety protocols and our region’s relatively low COVID-19 rates.”
Theme parks and other attractions closed in mid-March because of the pandemic, and began re-opening at limited capacity in June. Gradually, some tourism activity is picking back up, though Diamond noted continued outbreaks across the country that are likely to stall travel plans.
”One factor, we think, is that there have not been any widespread reported infections stemming from the parks, the tourism areas or anywhere that should give anybody, any concern.”
He said news from Pfizer on Monday that early data shows an effective vaccine is “very encouraging and very welcome.”
But the virus continued to stampede through Central Florida with new deaths and more cases reported on Monday.
Dr. Raul Pino, Orange’s state health officer, said 19 more deaths were added to the count since Friday, though it was unclear when those individuals died.
“Our data shows that cases are increasing,” he said, encouraging people to continue wearing masks, washing their hands and keeping socially-distant from others.
He said many of the cases in Orange seem to be transmitted among people who know each other who came in close contact at a social gathering such as a birthday party or other event, though he said no outbreaks had been traced to the large political rallies that occurred in the weeks before the election.
Pino also said there was a mix-up at the health department that resulted in 26 students at Bridgewater Middle School in the Winder Garden area not receiving a notification over the weekend that they should quarantine. As a result of an e-mail not being