Commentary: Chamber shares economic concerns with Gov. Carney

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following letter was sent to Gov. John Carney from the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.

By Carol Everhart

On behalf of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce board of directors, I write to you today to raise our concerns regarding the economic effects of the coronavirus. The board fully understands, appreciates and supports the primary goal of keeping residents and visitors safe. The board further understands that you are in the difficult position of simultaneously representing the state of Delaware and its residents, visitors and business community.

We thank you for your initial efforts in having Delaware removed from the 14-day self-quarantine list required by some of our surrounding states. Unfortunately, we find ourselves back on several states’ quarantine lists again, which has led to a devastating impact on our local businesses. Our business increased to some extent in the weeks after being taken off the lists, which leads to the importance of once again asking for Delaware to be removed from the lists.

As businesses across the state continue to suffer from the effects of COVID-19, those in Sussex County find themselves more susceptible to economic hardship, given that the road to recovery is running short. For many of our seasonal businesses, the opportunity to generate enough summertime cash flow to make it through the winter months is quickly fading away. For many businesses in the Delaware coastal communities, summer seasonal revenues in June, July and August count for as much as 80% of their annual revenue. While June was better than expectations, the month’s positive sales trend was erased in the first two weeks of July. Revenue in 2019 compared to 2020 reflects that hotels have lost 35% to 50%, and retail stores and restaurants report losses of 75%. The financial and economic fallout will be like nothing we have ever experienced if our government officials do not provide some help or relief immediately.

Over the last two months, many of our industry trade organizations have offered solutions and plans directly to you and your staff. We will continue to offer feedback and suggestions to make you aware of potential pitfalls for businesses. We know our businesspeople, employees and customers. We are doing everything we can to protect them all. We are more than willing to share any information that will help in keeping our state safe and healthy, while allowing the business community the opportunity to thrive in the midst of this difficult situation.

The overwhelming percentage of businesses in Sussex County are adhering to the required social distancing, sanitizing and personal protective equipment standards. As our hospitalization and percent-positive testing numbers have decreased, we need to work with our leaders to get this reassuring message out.

We need to encourage both visitation and the following of guidelines. Though the late-June spike in positive COVID-19 cases was unfortunate, the business community reacted quickly and responsibly with forced quarantines, business closures and the offer of space for new testing sites. As a result, cases are dropping, and hospitalizations are at their lowest level in Delaware since the pandemic started. This positive and proactive approach was provided on a voluntary basis and should be applauded and recognized.

With the more recent enforcement attempts designed to slow the spread of the virus, it is now obvious that the actual messaging being communicated by the state is a factor in this latest downturn. Many of the recent messages are unwelcoming and confusing to residents and visitors. People believe our restaurants and bars are closed and that masks are required at all times, even while on the beach or seated at tables. We feel that it is necessary to release a clearly stated series of messages touting the success of the plan to keep residents, visitors and staff safe, while still providing a healthy, vibrant resort area. It is critical that this messaging come from our government leaders immediately.

Please use the tools that we possess to begin sending a positive message out to residents and visitors. We understand there is an advertisement ready to go at the Delaware Tourism Office. Dissemination of this would go a long way in sending a positive message about Delaware’s safety commitment to the stated virus-reducing guidelines. A clearly communicated marketing message can effectively reach and attract the customers we want and need.

We suggest the time is now to begin serious conversation toward moving to Phase 3 of the recovery process. Let’s work together to avoid missteps in communication as we enter this next phase.

Neglecting to address the current economic disaster at the beaches and surrounding areas will result in dire consequences eventually felt by all. A sampling of our 1,200 members indicates hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. These losses will be shared by all when tax revenues are not realized. Our state is small, and losses in several sectors of up to 75% are much more than a larger state. How will we pay for the operations of our state? The notion of increases in property taxes, gas taxes or other creative taxes and fees will further hamper economic recovery for businesses and consumers alike. Many small businesses and residents will not have the means to pay additional taxes if an increase in jobs and revenue is not realized in the next six weeks.

The effects of an economic collapse to the business community in Sussex County will be felt across the entire state. Tourism is one of Delaware’s strongest business sectors. Negative revenue trends in the restaurant, retail and lodging industries in particular have far-reaching consequences across the First State. We must do all we can, together, to avoid such an outcome. We ask that you direct key staff members to communicate that our businesses are open and adhering to the standards of responsible social distancing, sanitization and the wearing of masks. We want to be part of a safe and prosperous solution that gives our struggling business community the best chance to survive. We hope you will respond to this letter with the willingness to work with the chamber.

Carol Everhart is president/CEO of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.