Could Zika fears affect Florida tourism industry?

Zika cases in Miami-Dade County prompt travel warnings

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – With Florida at the forefront of the battle against Zika, many across the state are concerned over the ripple effects of the virus, which is now being spread by Florida mosquitoes.

Tourism hit a record high for the Sunshine State last year. Now, many are hoping the Zika virus won’t scare off potential travelers.

With 10 new locally transmitted cases of Zika virus coming out of Miami-Dade County on Monday, officials warned women who frequent that area to get tested. They also said women who are pregnant or looking to conceive should avoid traveling to Zika-infected areas.

Tourists flock to Florida's historic coast every year for a number of reasons, spending money and creating jobs. But the increasing risk of the Zika virus has some tourism officials worried.

“Well, any time there’s anything that creates a perception that travel to Florida and our part of Florida in particular is going to be a problem, we’re very concerned,” said Richard Goldman with the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Goldman said that concern is tempered with cautious optimism, at least for now, because mosquito control is working to get ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting the Zika virus.

“One of the things they began was an outreach several months ago, talking to our attractions and our hoteliers, letting them know how they can do some things to avoid mosquito larvae breeding and that sort of thing,” Goldman said.

Anastasia Mosquito Control experts told News4Jax that they believe Zika could make its way to Northeast Florida, but not because of mosquitoes traveling north.

Christopher Bibbs, an education specialist with Anastasia Mosquito Control, said it's more likely people will bring the disease to the area -- and they might not even realize it, because the disease often carries no symptoms.

Anyone carrying the disease could spread it if they're bitten by a mosquito that then bites someone else.

That's why officials and experts are urging people to avoid Zika-stricken areas, and to protect themselves with repellent, long sleeves and pants.

“These mosquitoes don’t travel much on their own,” Bibbs said. “What you’re going to see is that the risk is from traveling into that area, not from the mosquitoes traveling out of the area. Although, more of Miami may come under risk because of local transmission, even as far as adjacent counties. You drive in to Miami for one reason or another, maybe a friend's family or visiting the city, that’s going to be your exposure risk. It’s not going to be the mosquito packed up its bags and went to the neighboring county."

St. Johns County officials said they believe they are prepared if locally transmitted cases are reported in Northeast Florida. They've been doing table top exercises, figuring out which agencies they'd call and how they'd handle the situation.

As of right now, the hardest-hit part of the state remains Miami-Dade County, and tourism officials in Northeast Florida said the best thing they can do is arm people with up-to-date information.

A record 105 million tourists visited Florida in 2015 alone, according to Gov. Rick Scott, and people like Goldman want to maintain that momentum.

He said that right now those visiting the area don’t seem all that concerned about Zika, and he hopes they won’t need any more reason to be any time soon.

“I’m confident, at least for now, that our visitors are also not terribly concerned. But, should they (become) and they let us know through those questions, we’ll respond with clear information for them,” Goldman said.