Tourism leaders seek fewer limits on visitors

REHOBOTH BEACH — With social distancing and out-of-state travel restrictions still in effect, localized reopening of southern Delaware beaches and boardwalks arrived Friday — the first step in tourism’s hopeful leap from the shackles of COVID-19.

Beaches in Rehoboth Beach opened for exercising and dog-walking, Bethany Beach’s boardwalk and beach opened to pedestrians and Delaware announced businesses in general will have a 30-percent of maximum capacity in step one of a three-phase reopening, which starts June 1. Dewey opened prior to that.

Gov. John Carney announced Friday that the state will allow beaches statewide to reopen, effective May 22 at 5 p.m. They had been closed since March 2 1 in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Local officials welcomed the news but said additional restrictions on hotels and rentals imposed during the pandemic need to be lifted too.

“Gov. Carney announced even more good news with the reopening of all beaches in Delaware next Friday, May 22, to swimming and sunbathing,” said City of Rehoboth Mayor Paul Kuhns. “This cautionary approach to roll out my framework for reopening includes exercise only on the beach, and dog walking on the beach through May 21.

“Again, strict social distancing and hygiene requirements will accompany the reopening of Delaware’s beaches. Beachgoers must maintain at least 6-feet of distance between themselves and anyone outside their household. Face coverings must be worn on the boardwalk and are encouraged on the beach.”

“Although short-term rentals, including hotel occupancy, are still not permitted, I am encouraged that these, too, will be opening up soon,” said Mayor Kuhns. “I am taking proactive steps to urge the governor to ease restrictions for those who own second homes and wish to come here from out of state.”

Carol Everhart, president/CEO of the Rehoboth Beach/Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, views this as a small but welcome gain in the big picture, which she outlined in a May 14 letter to Gov. Carney.

“I would say at the forefront there are two things,” said Ms. Everhart. “One is that we are very concerned about it moving beyond curbside, an additional formula for them to do business and how retail can operate beyond curbside. The retailers are telling us curbside does not work for retail. And there is still some considerable confusion about the travel ban and the self-containment to come in. We’re waiting for some additional clarity on that. I’m hoping I have something by Monday. We’re trying to get a little bit more clarity on that … maybe some additional guidelines on how rentals can continue.

“The anticipation is the fact that getting the beach and boardwalk open is major. Because no customers; no business,” Ms. Everhart said. “So, getting the beach open is a great start and a very positive start. We just hope that the other phases come sooner than later. Businesses have been truly devastated by all of this. In checking with them, if they weren’t open, they are down 100 percent. If they were open, the reports are 95 percent of them were down 50 percent to 85 percent.

“So, it’s devastating and we’re in Week 9. It will take a lot to make that up, especially for the smallest of them.”

Gov. Carney’s first phase of the reopening process is scheduled to begin June 1. The state allowed some retail outlets to open with limitations last week.

Out-of-state visitors are subject to a 14-day quarantine upon entering Delaware, which state troopers will enforce over the Memorial Day weekend so only Delawareans can access the beaches.

“They will have their hands full with enforcement on that one. There are a lot of visitors in the area right now. Whether they have been here for 14 days or not I don’t know,” Ms. Everhart said Friday.

Scott Thomas, Southern Delaware Tourism executive director, envisions tourism’s rebound starting at the local, ground level, given the out-of-state restrictions.

“As with all destinations, it is really going to start ultra-locally and certainly residents that maybe typically don’t explore a whole lot,” said Mr. Thomas. “There has been a lot of effort trying to get residents to maybe do a little bit more exploration in their own backyard in the county, because it is those travelers that will be the first ones to really at their own discretion and with safety in mind be the first foot to go back out, with the out-of-state travel ban in effect.”

Under Gov. Carney’s orders, hotels remain closed except those open for lodging of “essential” workers or personnel only.

“The hotels, most of them are just closed, because the cost of operating is more than what they possibly bring in with just essentials,” said Ms. Everhart. “The travel ban affects short-term rentals, also.”

“I think it is imperative that we look at it almost as a stress test. OK, locals are out. What is going right? What is going wrong? Then make adjustments,” said Mr. Thomas. “The next step really will be to get our hotels operational and letting them get through the motions. They are all eager to get started in a safe manner.”

Confusion on rentals centers on interpretation of the governor’s order.

“Say I rented a house, a condo, whatever for more than 14 days. As long as I stay in it for 14 days, can I still have that rental for the rest of the summer?’ Is that … just for the homeowner? And therein lies the interpretation. There is confusion, possibly not to the order, but in the interpretation,” Ms. Everhart said. “That is what we are trying get very clear clarification on. Coming in for a week, can I come in if I self-contain? Is that just the homeowner? Is that for someone who has rented for a week? According to the governor’s order as we read it now, there is a travel ban. What has been opened is for in-state only.”

In her letter on behalf of the Rehoboth Beach/Dewey Beach Chamber, Ms. Everhart asks Gov. Carney’s consideration to allow for leisure in-state travel along with transient business travel in Phase One of the reopening plan, based on but not limited to the following:
• Hotels and motels are better equipped to practice social distancing than most of the retailers which have been permitted to remain open during this crisis. Hotel guests are able to limit their interaction with staff and other guests by separating themselves in guest rooms, utilizing mobile check-in options, and by adhering to strict cleanliness guidelines in place at each establishment.

• Like restaurants, hotels can reduce occupancy as necessary to mitigate any congestion around the premises. This scalable correlation should lead to a similar opening strategy with both entities.

• Ocean City will allow hotels to open and operate effective May 22. This will inevitably create interstate travel among Delaware residents to those areas, which will result in financial harm to Delaware businesses and create an unfair advantage for the Maryland economy.

• The Delaware lodging industry, including but not limited to hotels and short-term rentals, is well-equipped with the proper personal protective equipment and standard operating procedures necessary to keep guests safe and to eliminate the transfer of COVID-19.

• The current standard operating procedures in place at each establishment correlate directly with guidelines issued from the CDC, and each establishment is using those parameters to protect employees and guests from any form of viral spread.

• Allowing for this activity now (among Delaware residents) can serve as a public “stress test” concerning CDC requirements. State officials, law enforcement and local businesses will have more time to make observations and adjustments with lower numbers of people frequenting their accommodations now versus a higher number when travel restrictions are gradually lifted throughout Phases 2 and 3 of Delaware’s recovery plan.

In Rehoboth, hotel/motel lodging January to mid-May was about half (38,396 to 20,073) compared to 2019, according to accommodations data, Ms. Everhart said.

More specifically, with the onset of the coronavirus crisis from mid-March to mid-May, weekend accommodations dropped sharply in 2020 to 2,990 from 20,213 in 2019.

“You see the difference, instead of thousands and thousands we are going to see 40, 50, 74,” said Ms. Everhart. “You can see when it started. You can see last year these nine weeks how many visitors we would have had than what we have now.”

Tourism strategy

“Clearly, since this pandemic crisis kicked in so fast, we as an organization are really focused on relaying information from the state, from the governor’s executive orders to our potential travelers. As you can imagine everybody is interested in what is open; what am I allowed to do,” said Mr. Thomas. “Even with the out-of-state travel ban still in effect, obviously people are still interested. What we have been doing is really trying to keep them informed.”

That includes virtual offering through Southern Delaware tourism’s website and social media. “We’re trying to update all of our virtual offerings as a destination around Sussex County,” said Mr. Thomas.

Once restrictions are lifted, Mr. Thomas anticipates a huge tourist influx.

“We look at drive-from markets, maybe four hours, from like New York or Pennsylvania. I think early on when travel restrictions are lifted, we are really going to be focusing more on maybe that 2 ½ to 2 hour radius. I think it is going to help us out because we’re traditionally a drive-to destination anyway,” said Mr. Thomas. “Everybody in the tourism industry, we want to salvage the summer of 2020 the best way possible. But it is such a dynamic thing right now. Everything is going to be a baby-step approach. I think everyone is doing their best to get ready. It’s a good sign that all the Delaware beaches will be accessible. We’re moving in the right direction.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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