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Tourist tax dropped 14% in 2020

SEBRING — Highlands County lost tourist business in 2020 to COVID-19. Exactly how much is still being tallied by local officials.

They hope to have the full picture of these last three months by their next quarterly meeting, in April.

However, early projections have the county’s revenue from the local-option tourist tax only down by 14% for the year, said VisitSebring CEO Casey Hartt. Although she doesn’t think that’s great, she said it’s better than some places – both coastal and inland – that have seen 50-60% drops from the pandemic.

Some months were actually up. January 2020 had $128,896 in tourist tax revenue compared with $121,870 in January 2019. Likewise, February 2020 brought in $156,987 in tax while February 2019 brought in $125,753.

The hit started in March with the first confirmed local cases of the coronavirus and the subsequent shutdowns and delay of the 12 Hours of Sebring to November — the biggest hit, Hartt said.

March 2019 brought in $206,213, and March 2020 only saw $62,523. All other months of the year saw dips, but July 2020 had $63,095 in tourist tax compared to July 2019’s $59,569.

“July 2020 was the best July we ever had,” Hartt said, thanks to lake house rentals and Sebring International Raceway hosting the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring on July 17-18. That helped bolster the local economy, as far as motorsports tourism is concerned, said John Story, senior director of Marketing, Business Development & Communications at Sebring International Raceway.

“It absolutely did in an otherwise slow season for us,” Story said.

That came about, he said, because the race’s usual venue couldn’t host it during a pandemic. Sadly, The Cadillac Grand Prix will return to its normal venue this year, but Sebring Raceway will host the 12 Hours of Sebring again in March, and will have another new event in November, Story said. The Creventic endurance racing series will stage the Hankook 24H Sebring — a 24-hour endurance race — at the Raceway Nov. 12-14, 2021.

2020 saw four new sports events come into the county, Hartt said, including the Gran Fondo New York (GFNY) international cycling marathon in October and the Expedition Florida Adventure Race at the end of December, bringing in sports participants during slow months when the county needs tourism funds.

According to her projections of economic impact, the GFNY event brought a projected $655,846 to the local economy, including $216,534 in impact from participants — driving in or staying overnight — and $439,312 from fans.

Based on a 7.5% state and local sales tax rate, that could mean $49,188 in revenue from the one event, her projections state, a hotel impact of $330,037 and $13,201 in tourist tax.

The tourist tax, as of April 2020, had already collected $600,000, and Hartt anticipated $125,000 more — $25,000 per month — to close out the fiscal year with $725,000 in revenue.

After taking out $181,250 of the third penny for tourism infrastructure improvements and $140,000 for operations, and adding back in the canceled purchases and grants and adding in the $85,000 contingency fund, the TDC would have had $520,625 for marketing at the start of Fiscal Year 2020-21.

Instead, the county collected $877,229 from Oct. 10, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020. After taking out $219,307 for the third penny and $140,00 for operations, and adding back in the contingency fund, the TDC started the fiscal year with $602,922 for marketing.

Detoured: Traffic rerouted on Sebring Parkway

SEBRING — If you can avoid Sebring Parkway from Youth Care Lane south to U.S. 27 for the next few months, you might want to do that.

If you can’t, be prepared for the possibility of detours and re-routed detours, depending on the work being done that day. Today, Feb. 26, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the northbound outside lane of U.S. 27 and the turn lane from northbound U.S. 27 will be closed.

Construction crews will be drilling in the right of way in front of Highlands Regional Medical Center. Motorists should slow down, use caution and follow all posted traffic signs.

Once the lanes reopen, however, motorists should continue to use caution, and unless they have to use Sebring Parkway, DeSoto Road or the intersection of those two roads, they may want to avoid that area altogether. On Thursday, road crews used a crane and bucket truck to install a mast arm for traffic signals over the westbound lanes of DeSoto Road at that junction.

County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. has reported that every time road crews make major changes to an intersection requiring them to realign the traffic signals, any span wires have to be replaced with mast arms. The Florida Department of Transportation requires the upgrades to make traffic signals more resilient against hurricanes.

As a result, all the span wires in Sebring Parkway Phase 2 construction will get replaced at the junctions of DeSoto Road and at U.S. 27, where mast arms will have to reach over five lanes on each side. Installation of those masts has not been scheduled, but is expected to reroute traffic on the six-lane divided highway during that time.

In this case, Howerton said, the mast arm will have to be longer than 87 feet, and will require an anchor post far larger than normal. It won’t go in, however, until Phase 2 is done, he said. That’s when the road will need extra traffic lights.

Meanwhile, motorists should be aware that northbound traffic will normally be detoured away from the intersection while the new northbound travel lanes and median are constructed. County public information officials have reported that plans are to keep the southbound lane open. However, it was closed Thursday to through-traffic while a crane sat in the roadway to lift a new mast arm into place for the DeSoto Road junction.

Motorists are advised to use caution, exercise patience, or best yet, avoid the area completely if they can, using Sebring Drive and Lakeview Drive to reach downtown or to rejoin Sebring Parkway at Kenilworth Boulevard.

County's COVID numbers much improved

Highlands County rebounded nicely after a rough COVID-19 day on Tuesday. The county saw an increase of just 13 cases, according to the Florida Department of Health Thursday virus update. That’s a drop of 32 cases from the previous day.

There have been 151 cases of COVID over the past seven days as reported by FDOH. That gives Highlands County a daily average of 21.57 cases of infection.

Better was the county’s positivity rate for new cases, which dipped to a two-week low of 3.49. The county processed 372 resident tests and had 360 negative results.

Highlands County has now had a total of 7,189 COVID cases, with 7,117 resident cases and 71 non-resident cases.

Of the new cases, two were in the 5 to 14 age range, giving a total of 472 cases seen in those 14 and younger since the beginning of the pandemic.

The median age for the new cases was 43, while the overall median age remained at 52.

Deaths remained at 298 in the county, while hospitalizations increased three to 562. According to the Agency for Health Care Administration, the county had 34 currently hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, which is a decrease of four from Wednesday afternoon. AHCA also showed an adult ICU bed census of 27 with just two beds unoccupied, or 6.90% availability.

FDOH has reported 655 cases associated with long-term care facilities. There have been 81 deaths from either staff or residents in long-term care facilities. The cases from Department of Corrections remained at 116.

The state numbers were also a bit better, as Florida saw an increase of 6,640 cases even though testing was at its highest in the past two weeks. The state has now seen a total of 1,892,301 cases, with residents accounting for 1,857,670 of the cases and non-residents making up the other 34,631.

The state’s positivity rate for new cases was 5.23%, which is the lowest it’s been in the past 14 days. Florida has seen positivity rates of less than 7% for the past 14 days.

Florida’s death toll did climb 140 and now stands at 31,018, with 30,478 resident deaths and 540 deaths in non-residents.

FDOH reported 44,437 vaccines given on Wednesday. The state has now vaccinated 2,838,326 people, with 1,298,556 people receiving the first shot and 1,539,770 having received both shots in the series. Of the people vaccinated, 2,151,697 of them (75.8%) have been seniors age 65 and over.

Numbers in the United States were similar to the previous day, with the COVID Tracking Project’s Wednesday night report showing an increase of 73,258 new cases, while deaths were reported at 2,447. Testing climbed more than 250,000 from the previous day and 1,464,714 tests were processed for the day. Hospitalizations continued to drop, with 54,118 currently hospitalized.

Virginia is still trying to get its numbers straightened out and reported high numbers of deaths for the fifth straight day, as the state is still processing backlogged death certificates.

California became the first state to pass 50,000 deaths, as the California Department of Public Health reported 1,114 deaths for the day, although 806 of those were a backlog from Los Angeles County, with the majority of them occurring between Dec. 3, 2020 and Feb. 3, 2021. The state had 4,965 new cases for the day.

According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the United States has seen 28.38 million cases and had 507,146 deaths.

Globally, there have been 112.8 million cases and 2.5 million deaths.

Perry wanted on murder warrant

SEBRING — Deputies are still looking for 24-year-old Johntravious “Tray” Perry for the murder of a 16-year-old at a car wash in Avon Park.

Shortly after the 6 p.m. Dec. 1 shooting at the All American Car Wash on Hal McRae Boulevard, Highlands County sheriff’s deputies identified Perry as a suspect and sought the public’s help with information on the shooting and/or Perry’s whereabouts.

Deputies believe he has fled the area. If you have any information, please call 863-402-7200 or leave a tip with the HCSO app or with Heartland Crime Stoppers at 1-800-226-TIPS.

His was one of two shootings that took place overnight between Dec. 1-2, 2020, in Avon Park, within just a half mile of each other. Sheriff’s detectives determined the shootings were not related, according to officials at the time.

Sheriff’s Office officials also said the victims, both age 16, were airlifted to Lakeland Regional Medical Center. One survived and one did not.

Second shootingThe second shooting was just hours and blocks away from the first, at or before 2:26 a.m. Dec. 2 at 1029 Hal McRae Loop. Arrest reports state a man, later identified as Tayten Solomon Hardy-Clunis, had forced open the door of a house at that address and started shooting, after knocking on the door, claiming to be there to deliver a pizza.

Within the week, deputies had arrested Hardy-Clunis, 19, on charges of attempted first-degree murder, armed burglary of a dwelling, possession of firearm or ammunition by an adjudicated delinquent adult felon.

His next court hearing is scheduled for the morning of March 18.

The new face of Highlands County NAACP

SEBRING — The Highlands County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Branch #5087 has a fresh face and voice in its new president Angel Wiggins. Wiggins was voted and sworn in by the NAACP members just after the new year.

Wiggins’ presidency was preceded by a term as vice president last year.

“I am bringing fresh blood to the branch and a more tech savvy awareness that will appeal to the 21- to 50-year-old age bracket,” Wiggins said. “It’s what I am geared toward.”

Wiggins said most of the presidents before her were born and raised in Highlands County and are “steeped in tradition.” Wiggins was born here, but raised in New York.

“I want to make sure we are visible and current with the times,” she said.

Wiggins wants the community to know the NAACP Branch #5087 is there to give them a platform for their concerns.

“We want to give the community a chance to sign up and be involved,” Wiggins said.

Another goal Wiggins has for the branch is to increase a diverse membership. On average, there are about 60 members. Wiggins wants the branch to become more visible so those moving to the area or potential new members know where to find them.

Anyone can join the branch, Wiggins said. The branch members include Haitians, African Americans, Latinos, Caucasians and mid-Eastern Americans. Applications can be found on Facebook at Highlands County NAACP #5087, email for an application at Hcnaacp5087@gmail.com or call 863-434-1612. There is a $30 application fee. The meetings are being held virtually because of COVID-19 at 7 p.m. the third Monday of the month.

Another major aspect of Wiggins’ plans will be to educate the community on important matters, including politics and health care. Wiggins gave the example of Political Action Chair Patricia Henderson working with Supervisor of Election Penny Ogg to ensure they are aware of every election and can share the information with the communities throughout the county.

“When I see the Black and brown turnout at the polling place, it’s scary,” Wiggins said. The idea is to inform the Black and brown communities about any elections and candidates, what they stand for and what the candidates have done in their history as politicians.

“We will be heard and that is from the school house to the polling place,” Wiggins said.

A major campaign to educate the Black and brown communities regarding the COVID-19 vaccine will roll out soon. Religion Affairs Chair Susie Johnson will be heading that campaign along with Health Care Chair Davette Thompson. As a team, they will address the disparity of vaccines in African Americans and Hispanics to their white counterparts.

“Disparity will be eliminated to some degree; ultimately it will be up to that person,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins also said people had to feel safe in their hearts and physically.

“Safe places start in religious community leaders and matriarchs; they are what make the Black and brown communities safe,” Wiggins said.

Details on the vaccination campaign will be announced soon.

Highlands County NAACP #5087 is run by a board and has several committees:

•President — Angel Wiggins

•1st Vice President — Aisha Alayande

•2nd Vice President — Daniel Paige

•Secretary — Davette Thompson

•Treasurer — Beverley Nolton

Committee chairs:

•Veterans Affairs Chair — Al Nolton

•Religious Affairs Chair — Susie Johnson

•Healthcare Chair — Davette Thompson

•Membership — Brenda Gray

•Political Action — Patricia Henderson

•Education — Robin Smith

•WIN (Women in NAACP) — Dorothy Hinson

•At Large Member/ Board Advisor — George Miller