Saturday, November 26, 2022

Area restaurants, hotels are hardest hit by the pandemic. With Busch Gardens shuttered, things remain grim

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is continuing discussions with state and local leaders to try and find a plan to reopen.(WYDaily/Busch Gardens Williamsburg Facebook)
Busch Gardens Williamsburg is continuing discussions with state and local leaders to try and find a plan to reopen.(WYDaily/Busch Gardens Williamsburg Facebook)

It’s no secret the Historic Triangle relies heavily on tourism dollars and the coronavirus pandemic pretty much dented revenues for most businesses, especially the service industry.

Indeed Phase 3 relaxed a lot of restrictions, but one of the biggest draws to the area, Busch Gardens (and Water Country USA for that matter), remains shuttered.

And support businesses such as hotels and restaurants have been suffering the economic pressure.

According to a report provided by the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association, in May local hotels were at 13 percent occupancy. That’s a 75 percent decrease in rooms sold and a 90 percent decrease in revenue compared to May of 2019.

The numbers for June show little improvement. Key word: Little. Occupancy is down by 67 percent, with revenue being down by 83 percent compared to June of 2019.

“I don’t know how else to put it. It’s devastating,” said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association.

Average hotel reservations were for two to three days before the coronavirus pandemic.

Now they are between one and two days.

Kirkland said about 75 percent of hotels in the area are open. Hotels that are operating have been limiting foot traffic through common spaces, including lobbies and dining rooms. They are requesting that guests call ahead of their arrival so clerks can prepare the paperwork and bring it out to the guests’ cars while wearing gloves and masks.

Continental breakfast is also being prepared by demand individually and then distributed to guests in plastic bags.

Rooms that are occupied must be sanitized after each stay and left unoccupied for at least 24 hours before allowing the next guests to stay there.

The Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association oversees roughly 100 member restaurants in the vicinity. Michael Claar, president of the Board of Directors of WARA and director of Aleworks, restaurants have been depending on locals and take-out orders to get by during the past several months.

“Busch Gardens brings in the lion’s share of tourism to the area, and without that attraction, there’s just a much lower ceiling on what the restaurant industry as a whole can accomplish for this year,” Claar said.

The costs of running a restaurant are also not going down at the same rate as the amount of revenue being made. By having to keep groups six-feet apart and following other safety measures, Claar said it’s even more expensive to run a restaurant than it was back in the summer of 2019.

Along with the devastation in revenue, employees in both hotel and restaurant industries are taking a hit.

“Based on our data, at less 25 percent of restaurant employees are still unemployed,” Claar said. “But that data is weighed heavily towards restaurants that have a lot of local appeal. That can’t take into account the thousands more positions that are just totally reliant on that tourism business.”

Both Kirkland and Claar stressed the need for an economic relief plan for local hotels and businesses if Busch Gardens were to remain closed for the remainder of the year.

When Gov. Ralph Northam announced the new restrictions for Virginia entering Phase 3 of reopening, he restricted the capacity of entertainment venues, including Busch Gardens and other amusement parks, to 1,000 guests.

During a James City County Board of Supervisors meeting on June 23, Kevin Lembke, president of Busch Gardens, said it wouldn’t be financially viable to open with that capacity limit.

Park officials had created a potential plan for reopening that would allow for 5,000 to 7,000 guests to enter the park. Attempts were made to reach out to Busch Gardens for an update on their plans of operation, but a representative was not immediately available to comment.

“If the governor’s office is going to insist that we not open a demand driver like Busch Gardens, and artificially preventing our economy from recovering, then there is going to have to be some level of an economic relief package,” Kirkland said.

Claar said WARA has been in touch with local elected officials to inform them where safety risks are for restaurants and urging them to provide support.

“If things do not continue to get closer to normal business, the more untenable the situation is, then we are going to need assistance. Businesses are not going to be able to wait out the storm,” Claar said. “There is not a lot of opportunity to create a safety net for situations like this.”

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