Those who work on the water in Volusia County are taking a hard financial hit and want backing from the state government to get their industry going again.
PONCE INLET — The south end of town, with its marinas, shops, restaurants and bars clustered around the iconic lighthouse, is usually bustling with business on any given day this time of year.
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These days this fishing village looks more like a ghost town because of coronavirus shutdowns and restrictions.
There are very few people out and about in the streets.
The big party boats sit silently in the water tied to docks while charters are few and far between.
Those who work on the water are taking a hard financial hit in this community. The charter and party boat industry was not included in the state’s Phase 1 economic opening directive orchestrated by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
[RELATED STORY: Florida Phase 1 details.]
"I am disappointed that when he rolled out his reopening plans with Phase 1, he did not specifically mention the charter boat industry as a whole," said Capt. Michael Mulholland, who owns the Sea Spirit party boat docked at the Down the Hatch complex.
"Speaking for charter boat captains up and down the east coast, we pump billions of dollars into the economy each year. We buy fuel, we buy tackle, bait, ice — you name it."
[RELATED STORY: Coronavirus starts a fishing frenzy.]
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, saltwater recreational fishing annually pumps $9.2 billion into the Florida economy and supports more than 88,000 jobs.
"As part of Florida’s hospitality business and being one of the state’s biggest attractions, we were not even mentioned," Mulholland said. "It’s like we don’t even exist."
The pain is being felt in other Florida coastal areas, as well. A couple in Vero Beach wanted to help so they founded a Facebook group called Save the Charter Boats in early April. The page raises funds for charter boat captains and their families by awarding a charter fishing trip from a random drawing.
The couple runs the drawing like a football pool, selling 75 chances for $25 each. The winner gets a fishing trip on the charter boat for a fraction of how much it usually costs. The couple then gives to proceeds of the drawing to the captain.
Back in Ponce Inlet at the Critter Fleet Marina, the Waterproof charter boat sits quietly. Capt. Tim Garrett has run the same boat out of the same marina since 1986.
"It’s been tough," Garrett said. "Last year we booked 42 trips in March and 23 in April. These last two months have been a disaster. We had four in March and five in April."
According to Mulholland and Garrett, the local charter/party boat industry depends on a robust spring season (March-June) to survive. Their clientele is mostly tourists.
Over the last seven weeks Mulholland has refunded more than $60,000 to customers, who canceled vacation plans to this area.
Mulholland, who wrote an open letter to DeSantis airing his grievances, said he has applied for financial aid through the federal-backed Paycheck Protection Program and only received frustration for his efforts.
"I think they discriminated against small businesses like us," he said. "Here I am a month since I filed an application and I’m still waiting to see if I will get it or not.
"The bigger companies are getting approved but guys like me, who are looking for $30,000 or $40,000 for salaries and expenses are getting stomped on like cockroaches. It’s pretty sad."
[RELATED STORY: Latest fishing report.]
There are some charter captains still making a living.
Capt. David Caruthers of strippinlipscharters.com said his bookings are down but not out. At this time period last year he had a charter each day. Over the last two weeks, he has booked nine charters.
"My business has slowed a little bit," he said. "Luckily, I have a lot of local clientele. That has helped me out tremendously through this time. They are carrying me through this. I get a lot of repeat customers."
Caruthers, who lives in Ormond Beach, has a lean business model. He trailers his boats — one for offshore, another for river fishing — to the water (no dock fees), purchases fuel at gas stations (lower priced) and uses social media to promote business.
"The fish are biting and we are champing at the bit to get going," he said. "This is our busy time of the year for everybody. We all look forward to this time of year.
"It’s just not happening right now. Everything is shut down. Nobody is traveling. A lot of airline flights were canceled, so people can’t even get here."
Garrett, who lives in Samsula, has a dozen charters on the books for May and hopes to pick up momentum into June.
"I have lived a simple life," he said. "I have most everything paid off. I’m just trying to hunker down.
"I try to be thankful for what we have. We got a freezer full of deer meat and fish. We won’t go hungry, but this has been a hardship, no doubt."
[RELATED STORY: Coronavirus causes wave of postponements.]
It’s a bit more complicated for Mulholland, who has 14 employees who work the Sea Spirit and a sightseeing boat called The Manatee.
After speaking with state Sen. Tom Wright, who represents southern Volusia and northern Brevard counties in Tallahassee, Muholland decided to try a soft opening this week.
The Sea Spirit will make two runs this week with a limited amount of passengers.
"We are going to tread water and see what happens," he said, adding he has asked a handful of his employees to man the 60-foot party boat.
"We will see what happens," he said "I activated my internet advertising and used my social media to get the word out and my phone started ringing."
He hopes to see Phase 2 of Florida’s economic opening around Memorial Day with the hopes of big June.
"If we can open up, that will be good," Mulholland said. "But it’s going to take time for people to feel comfortable around other people.
In announcing Phase 1, DeSantis gave the state a four-day notice.
"It takes time to get people back. If you operate at 25% capacity, you are actually losing money. If we get to Phase 2 like around Memorial Day, don’t give us a few days to tell us, because people need a couple of weeks to plan ahead."