In July, Sarasota County, where Siesta Key and Longboat Key are, actually registered a small increase on the year in visitor numbers, even during the red tide, from 115,800 visitors in July 2017 to 118,000 visitors this July, according to Lynn Hobeck Bates, communications manager for Visit Sarasota County — though she attributed those numbers to an increase in hotel inventory.
Business owners in the tourism sector here, however, say they have seen a hit worse than they’ve had in years — and that’s coming from folks who routinely suffer through hurricane seasons.
“This is paradise ground zero right here,” said James Sullivan, a bartender at Casey Key Fish House, a divey tiki bar on a spit of sand in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway, as he dug a beer out of a cooler and opened it with the sleeve of his Hawaiian shirt. Labor Day weekend at the bar usually includes live bands throughout the afternoon, and rowdy calls for shots. This holiday weekend, though, it looked downright civilized, with just as many guests as empty barstools.
“I’d say business is down 70 percent here,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We just show up to work and see how it smells to see if we’re closed or not.”
About a half-hour north by boat is Longboat Key and the ultra-popular Dry Dock Waterfront Bar and Grill. On a Friday afternoon, on the tail-end of the lunch hour, two waiters, Brittney Dolman and Heidi Frederick, found themselves with empty sections and not much more to do than stare forlornly out the window at the water below. “The water’s usually not this dark,” Ms. Dolman said — a promise she said she’s been making to the few customers who venture into the restaurant these days.
“Normally I’ve got 200 customers in a shift,” Ms. Dolman added. “But some shifts I’ve been leaving work with zero customers and zero dollars,” adding “we’ve never seen it like this.” Kurt Disney, the Dry Dock’s manager, estimated business is down 50 to 75 percent. “We’re normally one of the busiest places in town, so I can’t imagine how the smaller places are coping,” he said.
The season that started with Labor Day will be particularly affected, since many of the area’s visitors are actually wealthy snowbirds, like the author Stephen King, who keep a home here. But a number of them are delaying their trips until the red tide subsides.