A great southerly migration takes place over the Eastern seaboard each February and March, when Red Sox fans from New England flock to Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training.
Flight plans this year, however, are being scuttled.
With the back fields behind JetBlue Park closed, with capacity at the ballpark capped at 24 percent, and with the risk of catching COVID-19 when infection rates are too high and vaccination rates are too low, spring training in 2021 looks as if it will be left mostly to the locals of Lee County.
Red Sox fans, except perhaps for one from Dorchester, want to just wait till next year.
“Everything revolves around being out on the back fields,” said Lorraine Reagan, 57, of Norwood, who flies to Florida for a couple of weeks each year with her sister. “That closeness you have around the benches, being around the players’ families, that will be taken away. We won’t be going if there’s no real access to the backfields.”
Jose Ramirez’s streak of 21 consecutive Red Sox spring training visits will end this year. He is still flying to Fort Myers, but he left Thursday, well before players report and workouts that are closed to the public begin.
He doesn’t want to be near JetBlue Park at any crowd capacity.
“Even if I had the vaccine, I wasn’t sure I was ready mentally to make that leap and get into a crowd like that right away,” said Ramirez, 50, of Tewksbury.
Dave Shedd, 56, of Wilmington, wanted to head down to make up for last year, when the game he had tickets for got canceled because of the pandemic.
But he correctly predicted in the fall that his luck would not be any better this spring.
“We pulled the plug on that in November — I just didn’t see how they were going to have people in the park down there,” said Shedd, who said he might make a trip to Florida anyway because he could use the break, but he’ll stay away from any spring training camp.
“It’s the whole atmosphere — just walking around the back fields, we hang out at the park all day, we stay late. I just don’t see that we’re going to be close to that for a long time. It’s hard enough to get a ticket as it is, and if you have limited seating, you’re not going to get the full experience you usually do.”
David Wilson, formerly of Marshfield, meets his brother and friend each spring, but as he wrote in an email, “We love our annual pilgrimage, but do you know of anyone who went to Florida who didn’t bring back COVID?
“This year we are going to pass. Wait for the vaccine to hit the 40-year-old group and continue our tradition next year.”
Just 216 flights between Logan Airport and Southwest Florida International Airport are scheduled for this month, compared with 290 a year ago, a 26 percent drop, with scheduled flights in March numbering 261 compared with 342 last year, a 24 percent decrease, according to Lee County Port Authority data.
The total number of passengers arriving at and departing from the Fort Myers airport reached record numbers last January and February before falling off the last 10 months, winding up on the year at 5.99 million passengers, 41 percent less than 2019.
Like most of Florida, tourism in the southwestern part of the state is vital, with the Grapefruit League slate of games just one of many revenue streams.
According to the most recent study conducted by the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, a sporting event was listed by just 7 percent as a reason to travel to the county, with just 11 percent of tourists actually attending an event, which ranks below shopping, golf, tennis, photography, and the big three of rest and relaxation, heading for the beach, and visiting friends and relatives.
A 2019 study by the Lee County Sports Development office found that spring training attendees for the Red Sox and Twins (who also play in Fort Myers) inject $68.9 million into the local economy, with $56.7 million spent outside the two ballparks. Close to 1,000 jobs are directly supported by spring training, with a total job impact of 1,090. The study showed roughly 40 percent of spring training attendees are returnees, with two out of three saying they definitely or probably would return the next season.
Last year, when MLB canceled spring training on March 12, “It was like the lights were shut off,” said Kevin Ruane, chairman of the Lee Board of County Commissioners and former county Tourist Development Council member. “We understood, even prematurely, that it was going to have dramatic impacts on bed taxes, sales taxes on purchasing, and overall cash in the local economy. It was just devastating.”
And while Ruane acknowledges that “this season will be a little softer obviously than prior seasons,” he said that the county still expects tourists to head for the beaches and warmer weather.
The relief from MLB’s announcement earlier this week that spring training will begin was real, said Ruane. If there are fewer tourists arriving from the Northeast and the Midwest because of COVID-19 fears, there are plenty of local fans to fill the limited seats.
“Tickets will be a hot commodity,” said Ruane. “It’s so much better than what we went through last year with such a limited season that we had. It just feels like we need something positive.”
That positive note just happens to be echoed by one New Englander, James Marcellus, 32, of Dorchester.
After having to cancel plans last year for his first spring training visit, Marcellus is not going to let the pandemic stand in the way of him flying down to see a Red Sox game as close to his late March birthday as possible.
“As long as that game is happening and they’re allowing people to go, I’ll for sure be there,” said Marcellus. “With all the information we have now about COVID-19, I think I can be responsible enough to not be fearful and enjoy a game. I know some people feel differently.”
Marcellus figured he would be in the minority with his thinking. He also figured there would be tickets available, but he realized he had not accounted for the high demand.
“I’m 99 percent sure — the only way I wouldn’t go would be if there weren’t tickets or they cancel the games altogether,” said Marcellus, who brightened at the prospect that perhaps someone associated with the Red Sox would read to the end of a story about one New Englander clamoring to see his favorite team play in spring training for the first time and could help ensure Marcellus’s flight would not be in vain.
“That would be awesome,” said Marcellus. “Put this on the front page!”