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VP Mike Pence visits tourism-reliant Florida as Disney shops reopen

VP Mike Pence also dropped off protective equipment at a nursing facility

ORLANDO, Fla. – Face masks. Temperature checks. Social distancing markers. These are the new safety measures Florida's largest industry is adopting as tourism businesses battered by coronavirus-related lockdowns start reopening, industry leaders told Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday.

Theme park executives, restaurant owners and hoteliers told the vice president at a roundtable discussion that the damage caused by shutdowns from the virus was unprecedented in a $86 billion industry that survived travel declines after the 9/11 attacks and the recession a dozen years ago.

“If we don’t get people back to work quickly, it's all over," central Florida hotelier Harris Rosen said. “Orlando is suffering. Orlando is struggling. The hospitality industry is in deep depression."

Pence responded, “We will get this opened up.”

Pence's Wednesday visit coincided with the limited reopening of an entertainment complex at Walt Disney World — the area's biggest tourist destination.

All workers and visitors older than 2 at Disney Springs must wear masks, temperatures will be checked at entrances to keep out anyone with a temperature 100.4 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) or higher and a limited number of people will be admitted to allow social distancing at the high-end outdoor shopping area with restaurants, movie theaters, a bowling alley and a Cirque du Soleil theater.

Walt Disney World and crosstown rivals Universal Orlando and SeaWorld have been closed since mid-March in an effort to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. Interim SeaWorld CEO Marc Swanson told Pence that he expected to be open in June. The other theme park resorts haven't said when they will reopen.

An entertainment complex at Universal Orlando partially reopened last week, and Universal Executive Vice President John Sprouls told Pence it had been a success. Safety measures similar to those at Disney Springs were implemented.

“We've had almost no negative pushback from anybody, not our team member nor our guests," Sprouls said. “If people feel that it's safe and that we are doing it responsibly, they will come back."

Disney Parks executive George Kalogridis said Disneyland Shanghai opened with attendance restricted to 20% capacity earlier this month and tickets sold out in the first few minutes.

“Those are the learnings for us we will certainly consider when we open here," Kalogridis said.

Florida's tourist-reliant economy was crippled this spring with the closures of the theme parks, beaches, convention centers and hotels. More than 2 million Floridians have filed jobless claims in a state with a 10 million-person workforce before the pandemic.

Bars and nightclubs in Florida remain closed, and on Wednesday 100 bar owners and employees demanded their reopening at a protest outside the Pinellas County courthouse in Clearwater.

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that travel spending for the Memorial Day weekend nationwide will reach just a third of last year’s levels — $4.2 billion this year versus $12.3 billion in 2019.

On Wednesday, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber announced the reopening of nonessential businesses but emphasized beaches and hotels remain closed. Restaurants won’t be allowed to reopen until next week.

South Florida has been the state’s epicenter for coronavirus cases, and it has trailed the rest of the state in businesses reopening.

“Our city, I always think of it almost as a gathering-based economy. So obviously I am concerned about it. We saw what happened in early March with spring break crowds and other events,” Gelber said. “Our beaches are not open. So that’s the number one magnet for our city when it comes to the large crowds.”

When asked by reporters, Pence said the Trump administration was considering further restrictions limiting travelers from other countries where the virus is spreading.

“We’re watching very carefully what’s taking place in South America, including in Brazil," Pence said. “We saw in recent days there was a significant spike in cases."

Before meeting with tourism officials, Pence visited the Westminster Baldwin Park senior facility in Orlando, where he signed a box of personnel protective equipment and praised the facility for not having a single case of the coronavirus.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Pence that the problem areas in Florida had been prisons and nursing homes, and he’s not seeing spikes in the general public.

“I really think Florida has set the pace,” Pence said. “Now as Florida begins to open up again ... we are going to continue to partner with you to protect your most vulnerable."

Critics of the Trump administration called the vice president's visit “too little too late."

“It’s not enough to show up for a photo op two months later," said Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party in an online news conference with reporters on Tuesday.

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AP writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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This story has been corrected to show that Disney visitors will be sent home with temperature 100.4 degrees or higher, not higher than 100.4 degrees.