STUART, Fla. — Tourism leaders from the Palm Beaches to the Treasure Coast are closing watching the omicron variant of COVID-19 this winter.
There are currently no confirmed cases of the variant in the United States, advisers with the White House COVID-19 Response Team said Tuesday.
Despite this good news, many health experts fear this new strain could already be in the U.S.
Dutch health authorities said Tuesday that omicron was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the World Health Organization about it last week.
Currently, the U.S. is barring entry to most travelers from eight southern African countries.
Much is still unknown about the new variant, but the World Health Organization warned that the global risk from the variant is "very high" and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
With all of this in mind, it is unclear how this will affect tourism numbers in Florida this winter.
Nerissa Okiye, the director of tourism at Discover Martin County, said the number of visitors took a dive when the pandemic first started.
But she and others expect Florida to continue to draw tourists especially if northern cities shut down again.
"I think here along the Treasure Coast in Martin County we have low density, so we have open spaces," Okiye said. "People who are still kind of hesitant to travel know there is a lot of space to spread out. We have wide-open beaches."
Okiye said short-term rentals in Martin County are already booked up.
"You don't want to be locked down. You don't want to be inside, and you don't have to do that when you're down here," she said.
In Palm Beach County, the expectation is that tourism will also be close to record numbers.
Glenn Jergensen with the Palm Beach County Tourism and Development Board said Florida's beaches and outdoor dining options drew tourists last winter when vaccines were being rolled out.
He said this tourist season should have even higher numbers.
"People still decided this is the place to be because you can be outside," Jergensen said.
However, all of those tourists are also a concern for health experts, especially if there is another pandemic wave.
"If you really want to do something, you should be screening every single passenger that comes into the state of Florida," said infectious disease specialist Dr. David Dodson.
However, that is not likely to happen.
Tourists have been flocking to the Sunshine State since last year, largely bolstered by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' anti-lockdown, anti-mask measures.
DeSantis reiterated Monday that Florida will continue to operate without lockdowns and mandates.
Doctors around the world are rushing to learn more about omicron and say it could take about two weeks before we fully understand the capabilities of the new variant.
"I wouldn’t shut down tourism," said Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist in Wellington. "I think we have to do common-sense measures like we have been, which is wear a mask and social distance when you’re in large groups."