The coronavirus has forced many businesses to limit their operations or close in order to comply with social distancing measures and executive orders.
On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam extended his executive order which closed or limited several non-essential businesses by one week with a tentative reopening date of May 15.
So how are restaurants and hotels in the Historic Triangle preparing for this?
Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association, said none of the member hotels were actually forced to close but a number of them chose to do so. The hotels and motels are down 80 percent compared to last year, but there is another problem besides the low numbers.
“The bigger issue for the lodging industry is when the executive order will expire to let people get out of their homes,” he said.
Northam’s other executive order is for residents to stay at home until June 10, three weeks after non-essential businesses are expected to resume operations. While he has recently stressed new guidance using the phrase “safer-at-home” as opposed to “stay-at-home,” he has yet to lift the order.
Kirkland said until the orders are lifted there won’t be a real difference in the local economy since people visiting or frequenting the area often see attractions like museums, Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg which are currently closed.
Kirkland said he feels people are going to want to travel after being cooped up for so long and might bypass Williamsburg.
“Here in Virginia, people who might otherwise come and visit here, might not do so,” he said. “Even if people can stay at a hotel, there’s nothing to do, and that’s no fun.”
Regardless, the association is providing recommendations for its members which is primarily focused on increased sanitation efforts, social distancing within reason and common sense practices, Kirkland noted.
Some examples are cleaning high touch points more frequently, providing personal protective equipment to staff who interact with the public such and changing check-in procedures, stressing online check-ins.
For visitors arriving at the hotel, they can stay in their car and call the hotel, while the staff prepares a key card and other items for a quicker check-in.
Hotels or motels serving continental breakfast can have people take the meals to their rooms and use social distancing measures in the dining room.
While the hotel rooms get cleaned every day, Kirkland said another recommendation is to clean rooms upon checkout for visitors staying longer than a couple days.
“We recommend they only clean the room upon checkout that way we have less people in and out of each room,” he said, adding visitors can still request fresh towels and other items. “For hotels if you’re not full, if you’re operating at 50 percent occupancy, if someone checks out, let’s leave that room unoccupied for at least 24 hours.”
Regardless of the association’s recommendations for reopening, Kirkland wonders how the conflicting executive orders will impact people opening businesses on May 15.
“We’re advocating for the lodging industry and the tourism industry,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the government will give more discretion to local leadership on when and how to open things and move away from the one size fits all for the state.”
When asked what they were doing to attract tourism and customers back to the area, Kirkland referred WYDaily to Victoria Cimino, chief executive officer of the Williamsburg Tourism Council.
In an email, Cimino wrote that based on their research partner’s SMARInsights’ recent consumer study, travelers view small towns, rural destinations and National Parks as safe and is confident Williamsburg can build toward recovery once travel resumes.
“Our organization has built an aggressive advertising campaign aimed at the people and markets that will be the first to step out into summer,” she added. “New television commercials, digital display and social advertisements, and robust media relations efforts, will launch in early June.”
On the restaurant side, there aren’t any plans to build advertising for attracting customers once businesses reopen, said Michael Claar, president of the Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association.
However, businesses are in the process of preparing for the reopening.
“In my opinion, I don’t think restaurants will have a difficult time adapting to the environment,” Claar said. “They’re already used to strict cleaning procedures so it’s not difficult to put people at ease.”
At the same time, Claar said there are a lot of unknowns for the industry — it’s unclear whether guests will even come to restaurants once they’re open or how people will respond to any new procedures.
There also aren’t any clear guidelines for these businesses’ operations once they reopen. Claar said various groups are providing recommended procedure updates, but no strict rules have been set by the state government.
“Restaurants are planning the best they can for reopening [on May 15],” he said. “Whether that happens or not, there’s not explicit direction on things like serving food to a table or taking employee temperatures.”
He said some of the new adaptations won’t be cheap, which will cause a burden on smaller businesses. For example, Claar said he expects more restaurants to use touchless technology, such as automatic sinks and card scanning devices. Many larger chain restaurants will be quick to implement these new designs but smaller restaurants might not be able to afford them.
“The extra precautions will not come cheap,” Claar added in an email. “This will be costly at a time when restaurants have endured severe revenue reduction with continued expenses.”
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