As the temperature rises and Newfoundland and Labrador is offered a brief reprieve from winter winds, stay-cationers are the last hope of the tourism industry in the province.
Premier Dwight Ball says it will get easier to travel once the province enters Alert Level 3, which could be as early as June 8.
According to the guidelines from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, staying at accommodations like hotels and bed and breakfasts will look very different than in previous years.
Dining areas will be closed, with room service or takeout options encouraged. All gyms, fitness centres, pools and saunas will be closed throughout. Lobbies and common areas are required to be rearranged to allow for physical distancing of guests. Workstations will need to be spaced out or plexiglass installed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Only disposable cutlery and containers can be used for room service, with food left outside the door for pickup.
Steve Denty, chair of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador, says the best thing businesses can do is clean and disinfect regularly.
“One of the best practices is increased sanitation of common areas — handrails, elevator buttons, doorways. That’s common sense and we encourage businesses to do that,” said Denty.
Denty says businesses are encouraged to allow for physical distancing as much as possible, but every business has its own challenges to contend with to comply with public health measures.
“Some people, it’s no problem to have 30 people six feet apart in a giant lobby,” said Denty.
“If you’re a small inn, BandB, vacation home or hotel, you might not have that option. So how do you get creative to make sure that your check-in, check-out customer interaction experience is pleasant and safe and comfortable to them, while not necessarily having as much space or ability to move furnishings and things around as other businesses do. This is where it’s incumbent upon individual businesses to take those guidelines and make individual plans.”
Denty says the government is not expected to do on-site inspections of individual businesses throughout the summer to ensure compliance with public health orders.
Rocky road ahead
Rob Bryenton is a co-owner of the Wildflower Country Inn in Rocky Harbour, in the centre of Gros Morne National Park. The 24-year-old business has been steady throughout its life, with a recent surge in bookings, Bryenton said.
“Ironically, this year was the highest number of bookings that we had ever seen,” he said.
“Usually, in the past we’d start getting bookings for the season around January or February. This year, we were booked probably to 80 per cent capacity by January.”
Since then, Bryenton has watched a steady stream of cancellations rush in since COVID-19 restrictions began in early March.
Staycationers are not the normal clientele for the inn. Bryenton says of all the bookings for the Inn for 2020, just one was from someone from within the province.
The tourism industry in the province is experiencing a boom. Visitors typically spend over $1 billion in the province, according to the provincial government, with 2,700 different businesses and 20,000 jobs created.
Bryenton says the recent boom has seen some colleagues upgrading their accommodations, meaning more debt and more vulnerability to a downturn.
“For the last three or four years it’s been absolutely heydays here. Everyone has new accommodations put up. Huge expansions on hotels, other businesses that are here, AirBnBs are everywhere,” he said.
“Some people have borrowed $600,000-700,000 last year to put up cottages that they have to rent for $300 a night. I don’t know if they’ll survive.”
On Monday the province announced $25 million in provincial money to support the industry, with businesses eligible for a $5,000 or $10,000 non-repayable contribution, depending on their size. The money is only accessible to businesses regulated by the province, meaning AirBnBs are not eligible for support.
Julie White, owner of Mobile Goat Excursions in Mobile on the province’s Southern Shore, says while her business will not open this year due to the loss of clientele, government support will see her through the season.
“In my situation, I have payments that need to be paid because I have financing that’s been done and that can’t be put on hold,” said White.
“I need to pay that consistently. I still have about $20,000 in operating costs with no business. It’s going to help out a lot.”
While responsibility lies with accommodations facilities to follow public health guidelines and create safe spaces for guests,
Judy Sparkes-Giannou, co-owner of Clayton Hospitality, which operates hotels in Gander, Clarenville and St. John’s, says while it’s clear measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus by public health officials has been successful, there are some nerves in rural communities around those from the Eastern Health region venturing elsewhere in the province.
Of the 260 COVID-19 cases in the province, 242 have been in the Eastern Health region. While COVID-19 has been found in all of the health authority regions in the province, Sparkes-Giannou says the daily warnings and cautionary may have created a sense of apprehension about staycationing at all for some, which must be addressed.
“As long as they promote staycations, they also have to promote the fact that if we continue following whatever protocols are in place, having people move about within the province will be safe for travellers and for the areas they are visiting,” she said.
Anyone with any symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, cough, headache, sore throat or runny nose — is encouraged to stay home.
Denty says consumers have their own responsibility to keep themselves and businesses safe.
“You still need the consumer to respect the health and safety standards that have been outlined by public health officials, whether that’s wearing masks, practising physical distancing, proper hygiene, constant handwashing. One of the best practices that we recommend to operators is very visible hand-washing stations or hand sanitizers in common areas and guest room spaces,” he said.
“I still think it’s incumbent on travellers to keep practising those things, to respect the business owners and the staff. This is going to be a new challenge for everyone.”