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story.lead_photo.caption Disney annual passholders get a peek at the coronavirus-inspired changes inside Disney's Animal Kingdom on July 9, 2020. (Dewayne Bevil/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Touted as essential to stop the spread of COVID-19, face masks also may be the key to luring tourists back to Orlando.

Visitors may avoid places that don't require masks, said Visit Orlando's George Aguel, a former Disney executive and CEO of the region's tax-funded marketing agency.

"Our recent research on the tourism side shows that over two-thirds of all U.S. travelers right now say they plan to wear a mask on their trips," he told what may have been the final meeting of Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings' economic recovery task force.

The panel has advised the mayor on reopening Orange County businesses and suggested ideas to bring back tourism amid the coronavirus pandemic, including debating Demings' month-old mandate that people wear face masks in public.

Aguel said the mask requirement "is definitely going to be playing well with the audience we're trying to attract to come back to our destinations," which closed in March as the virus tightened its grip on Florida.

He said healthy restarts of the NBA and MLS sports leagues at Disney also will boost Orlando's image as a safe place to visit.

At earlier meetings, the task force considered imposing fines up to $500 for businesses that ignored measures to protect public health such as social distancing and face masks, but instead decided Tuesday to support a so-called "strike team" concept.

Demings has assembled squads to visit businesses and enforce compliance with the June 20 order.

The teams, made up of code-enforcement staff, state health officials and firefighters, will work with those businesses and try to persuade them to comply with the order or report stubborn offenders to regulatory and licensing authorities.

Aguel, co-chairman of the task force, provided similar insights Friday to the Tourist Development Council.

Both meetings were conducted across video-conferencing platforms because of the pandemic, blamed for 119 deaths here.

He told the panels that COVID-19's harm to the tourism industry is far worse than the slump that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Tourism's recovery will be slow and has already begun, he said.

"I never thought I'd get excited about 39.7 % (hotel) occupancy but we got pretty excited," he said.

Aguel was referring to hotel occupancy on Saturday July 4th, the highest one-day figure in Central Florida since March 14.

Occupancy during Orlando's busiest months is historically in the range of 90%.

"We know there is a tremendous pent-up demand for the general public to get off the couch and start traveling," he said.

Aguel said tourists will look for safety when they do.

He emphasized his message with a minutelong video featuring video clips and social media posts from Orlando vacationers — nearly all wearing face coverings — at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disney parks and on SeaWorld roller coasters.

One post said, "You can't see me smiling, but oh boy I am!"

At the tourist development council meeting, Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond, who tracks hotel tax revenues, said the county was on pace to break $300 million for the first time ever before the pandemic hit. The new estimate for fiscal year 2019-20, which ends Sept. 30, is about $150 million, as receipts plunged to a record low of $774,000 in April. May was almost as bad.

The tax, a 6 % assessment tacked onto the cost of a hotel room or other short-term lodging, has been used to pay debt on the Orange County Convention Center, fund Visit Orlando and pay to build or improve Camping World Stadium, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and other venues.

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