Florida welcome centers reopen with free face masks

Two state-operated welcome centers opened to the public Monday for the first time since March, while the coronavirus pandemic keeps two others locked up.

And while the highway centers were once known for offering free orange juice to weary travelers, state workers at the reopened facilities --- on Interstate 10 near the Alabama border and Interstate 75 near the Georgia border --- are providing free face masks as part of COVID-19 protocols.

Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said Monday that more than 400,000 masks have been made available by the state Department of Health and the Division of Emergency Management’s State Emergency Response Team.

“They will be for our staff, and we will be making these available freely to the public throughout the summer if they desire to pick one up while they are visiting our state,” Young said during a Visit Florida Executive Committee conference call.

The welcome-center openings come after the state on June 5 ended a motorist checkpoint on I-10 near the Alabama border that was set up in late March as part of an effort to require people traveling from Louisiana, then a COVID-19 hotspot, to self-isolate if they entered Florida.

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Still not open is a welcome center along Interstate 95 and a Visit Florida kiosk inside the Florida Capitol, which remains closed to walkup visitors.

The I-95 welcome center is located just north of a weigh station being used as a COVID-19 checkpoint for motorists from the disease hotspots of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“We are really looking forward to being able to reopen the I-95 welcome center, and we hope to have more news on that in the coming days,” Young said.

At the checkpoints, motorists have been required to complete forms that include contact information and trip details. The state collected nearly 28,000 traveler forms at the I-10 checkpoint. More than 35,700 forms had been collected at the I-95 checkpoint as of Monday, according to the state Department of Transportation.

When the respiratory virus caused the closing of many state agencies, at least 16 of the 20 people who work at the state’s welcome centers were trained to handle phone calls from small business owners for the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The opening of the centers comes as Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing agency, is finalizing a “rebounder” marketing campaign that will initially concentrate on getting Floridians to become comfortable traveling in the state.

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“This includes an in-state effort promoting state pride and travel by Floridians, and out-of-state effort reminding potential travelers about the uniquely transformative power of a Florida vacation,” Young said.

As part of the marketing campaign, which is slated to go before the organization’s Board of Directors next week, Visit Florida, working with the governor’s office, has applied for $8 million from the federal government to help local destination marketing organizations, Young said.