For Ray Pickett, May was supposed to be a strong month at the Blowing Rock Inn, which he and his wife own and manage.
With spring in the air, flowers blooming along with Mothers’ Day, a big planned concert and graduation at Appalachian State University, most of the month was booked before the end of last year. Due to the virus, Gov. Roy Cooper’s state mandated lockdown and the Watauga County ban on short term rentals through June 5, one of his best months of revenue is gone with no relief in sight.
“I think it may have gone on too long,” said Pickett of the governor’s shutdown orders. “We have some restaurants that I am worried will not make it. Some hotels that will not make it. That is scary for a town like us. These are our friends. To see it gone in a blink of an eye. June 5 is a long way off.”
The story is similar for John Lewis and Amy Blake and their newly obtained investment property on Bald Head Island. They are currently banned from renting their home, known as The Keewatin House. They are hopeful the local ban will be lifted on the Island soon, but John and Amy have already refunded and lost thousands in canceled bookings.
Bought two years ago as an investment property, their first summer saw 11 full weeks of peak summer rentals, plus key weekend rentals in May, September, and October. They are down to just two bookings for the summer, losing renters who have booked the same house for the same weeks for years.
“The slow pace of North Carolina’s re-opening is not helping, and now with South Carolina set to be fully open in days, it just makes it so much harder on us who still have mortgages to pay, renters or not,” said Lewis.
A recent WRAL poll provides even more concern for John, Ray, and others dependent on North Carolina’s tourism economy.
Fifty-seven percent of North Carolina respondents said they have already canceled or changed vacation plans because of the pandemic.
“What this summer will look like is almost as a fluid situation as COVID-19” Carolina Beach Mayor LeAnne Pierce said, referring to the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Only 29 percent of people surveyed in the WRAL poll said they plan to visit the North Carolina coast this summer. Similarly, only 14 percent said they plan to take a trip to the mountains.
North Carolina’s state tourism director told WRAL that tourism losses could top 50 billion dollars this year alone.
The World Travel and Tourism Council has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could cut 50 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industry.
Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) says the Wilmington area needs tourism to come back and come back fast, after devastation of the 2018 direct hit New Hanover County took from Hurricane Florence, plus losses from the declining film and television industry.
“People are concerned. I think we need to open all we can open,” said Rep. Grange. However, Wilmington’s Mayor has allowed only some short term rentals to return, while keeping hotels and motels closed.
Grange says she remains cautiously optimistic, but also realistic.
“I don’t think people are going to be swarming back. They are going to look at their financial situation. I think they are going to be skeptical. It is tough on the coast, very tough. But it is up to the consumer. And I don’t know if they will have the resources.”
Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret, Jones) who manages a couple of beach rental properties and is talking to many others that do as well, says North Carolina’s slow re-opening and lack of a regional approach is having a severe impact on her coastal Carteret County with a loss of tourism and tax revenue.
“I’m frustrated that we don’t look at our counties like the federal government has looked at the states to be a little bit more individual,” says McElraft.
“We could do a regionalization kind of opening in places like Carteret County that don’t have many cases. We have already lost so much business. People are cancelling June and July. They are saying keep our deposit for next year, but I just pray we don’t lose the whole summer.”
McElraft added that people dependent on vacation rentals are not eligible for any kind of government relief, and other business such as charter fishing boats, restaurants and tourism service industries are all on the brink of collapse.
Clark Twiddy and his family’s business, Twiddy & Company, manage 1,100 rental homes on the Outer Banks. He says state leaders have not helped provide the type of certainty that can lead to the “V” shaped recovery the Outer Banks needs. North Carolina’s slow re-opening plan combined with South Carolina’s recent easing of restrictions is costing his owners key rentals.
“Any date is better than no date,” said Twiddy. “Uncertainty leads to hesitation; hesitation leads to doubt and doubt to fear. And if you fear coming to North Carolina you may not fear going someplace else.”
“Nobody is making money here. We were set to have a record year, now we just hope to be down 25%.
If we can hit that, then we can do what N.C State coach Jim Valvano preached during the championship run in 1983: Survive and advance. If we can survive and advance it simply means being in business next year.”
From Blowing Rock, to Wrightsville Beach, to Nags Head to Bald Head Island; homeowners and tourism related business are asking two questions: Can government give them clear and consistent rules that allow them to function in a profitable way, and will customers return, at least enough for them to survive and advance to next year?