Cancellation of the 65th State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida at the RP Funding Center has million-dollar impact on area hotels and restaurants.

LAKELAND — The worldwide spread of the COVID-19 virus is impacting Polk County, with the cancellation of one of the RP Funding Center’s biggest annual events — the 65th State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida, which had been scheduled for March 24-26.


The event draws thousands of people from across the state to Lakeland each year.


“The risks to more than 950 student finalists, their families, schools, communities, and the more than 800 adult volunteers that support the event, are far too great to justify this year’s SSEF,” said Bill Herschleb, chairman of the Florida Foundation for Future Scientists, which puts on the event that includes the brightest students in Florida.


“This event brings together representatives of every age and every region of the state, and the close person-to-person contact during the three-day event provides for unimpeded viral transmission,” Herschleb said. “We know that most students and adults will be disappointed with our decision, but we trust everyone will understand that it was made with the best interests of our population in mind.”


It is unclear what will happen with the many scholarships that are handed out each year at the event or how or if the International Science and Engineering Fair in May will take place this year. Officials with the Society for Science & the Public and Regeneron, which puts on the event, have already postponed their annual 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search, originally scheduled for this weekend.


It will take place this summer “out of an abundance of caution regarding COVID-19 and in order to prioritize the health and safety of everyone who attends our events,” a statement on the organization’s website states.


The state science fair not only impacts those involved, it also has a financial cost.


“That event specifically is about a million-dollar impact for Lakeland and Polk County,” said Kris Keprios, senior sales and tourism marketing manager for Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing.


Jackie Johnson, senior vice president of the Lakeland Convention & Visitors Bureau and Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, said the cancellation affects the RP Funding Center, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that see a bump in sales when large groups visit.


“The cancellation has a far-reaching impact,” Johnson said. “That includes the five percent Tourist Development Tax, which helps us promote and pay for many of the quality of life venues that bring visitors to Lakeland and Polk County.”


Keprios said that was the only major county event that’s been canceled so far. Other events are continuing as planned, including the Central Florida Collegiate Invitational, which involves 270 college baseball teams playing games all over the county this month, the annual state high school boys and girls basketball tournaments, and Detroit Tigers spring training.


There were some hesitant handshakes and a lot of fist and elbow bumps at the 14th annual Wise & Witty Women — and Many Magnificent Men — lunch at Polk State College on Friday as hundreds of the county’s top women leaders gathered to inspire each other and be inspired by guest speaker Jody Urquhart.


The largest gathering place for people in Polk County — public schools — is sending out supplies of soap and hand sanitizer to the 150 schools in the district.


“Our district is making sure dispensers are installed and soap packets inserted,” School Board member Sarah Fortney said on her Facebook page. “Common areas will get sanitizer stations installed. They've already started.”


Some teachers complained on Fortney’s page that their classrooms are not being cleaned thoroughly and wondered what Aramark’s five-year and more than $2.5 million annual contract entails.


A review of that deal shows that it involves the purchase and maintenance of custodial and grounds equipment, along with about a half-dozen supervisors, and the training of custodial and grounds-keeping staff.


“School shall provide, at its own expense, all custodial materials and supplies,” the contract states. “Aramark agrees to sell custodial materials and supplies to School, upon request by school, at the prices established by Aramark for such items from time to time. School will be responsible for providing mop services to all School facilities currently receiving such services.”


District officials also issued a statement on their webpage.


“If you have concerns about safety or sanitation, we ask that you please contact your school’s administrators directly, so that they are made aware of the issue and have a chance to respond,” officials said. “For additional help, please e-mail news@polk-fl.net or visit polkschoolsfl.com/healthinformation.”


In the last report from the Florida Department of Health-Polk County, there had been no reported cases of the coronavirus locally. DOH could not be reached for comment Friday.


Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.