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A summer not like the rest: Local hotel, inn owners await reopening directions

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In a normal year, the Old Lyme Inn already would have been booked out through Memorial Day weekend, and reservations tied to summer weddings, local festivals and parades would either be booked or flooding in.

But that’s not the case this year, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic forced the inn to close in March.

Bookings were “canceled through the whole summer,” owner Chris Kitchings said. “Summer is the beginning of the gravy for the business. Now is when things would be happening — but it’s not.”

Kitchings is one of hundreds of lodging owners throughout the region losing thousands of dollars this spring after Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order in March forbidding their establishments from hosting leisure travelers, forcing many local hotels, inns, bed & breakfasts and short-term stay services, such as AirBnbs, to shutter operations. Many lodging owners were forced to lay off the majority of their staff as they’re pressed to save money after refunding would-be guests whose reservations were canceled.

But lodging owners who depend on summer tourism are becoming increasingly anxious as the unofficial start of the season approaches, as they still await direction from state officials about how and when they may begin to reopen. Many say they’re in an uncomfortable limbo about when they can again take reservations and how they should start preparing to adhere to more stringent cleaning protocols they expect the state to implement.

The Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, established by Lamont more than three weeks ago, has been weighing health risks with a declining economy to outline which business sectors can begin to reopen on May 20. Its plan centers around putting public health first and will remain science-driven, focusing on ensuring personal protective equipment, or PPE, for businesses, while making sure hospitals don’t reach capacity. It must be able to nimbly scale up or roll back reopening, depending on the number of new COVID-19 cases occurring throughout the state, the group has said.

Lodging was not included in the first phase of reopening, but advisory group member Oni Chukwu briefly mentioned at a Thursday business roundtable that the group is expected to include it in an upcoming reopening phase, though details were unclear.

“It’s been really vague and ambiguous,” Distinctive Hospitality Group President Lou Carrier said this past week, whose company jointly owns and manages the Hilton Mystic and also manages The Madison Beach Hotel. “We are all a little bit desperate.”

He said that while he and others in the industry understand and support the governor for working through the reopening process as methodically and carefully as possible, the longer those in the lodging industry wait for answers, the harder it will be for them to survive.

Carrier said that since Lamont’s executive order was signed, he has shut down both his hotels, furloughing almost all his employees, and has lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in cancellations “already straight through May.” Summer months, he said, make up 65% of his business year’s “productivity,” or revenues, he said. “That’s how substantial (the season) is ... It would be absolutely devastating to us if we had to be closed throughout the rest of the summer.”

H. Perry Garvin owns 40 short-term rental homes in the Hawks Nest Beach neighborhood in Old Lyme. He said his rentals were about 90% booked throughout the entire summer, with all of them booked Memorial Day weekend. While he has had to cancel all of his May reservations and now some in June, he is nervously waiting to see when lodging restrictions will be lifted.

“We are hoping for good news but, right now, it’s a waiting game,” he said. “The phones are ringing off the hook asking if we can open again. Hopefully we can at least save the main season. I’m not the only one in this situation. We all count on this income.”

In addition to the negative impacts a lost short-term rental season likely would have on local businesses, Old Lyme First Selectman Tim Griswold said he worries about possible delays in revenue for the town, as short-term rental owners depend on rental income to pay their property taxes each July.

“They have a lot of units. They do a lot of work preparing and fixing in the winter to open in the summer,” Griswold said. “If they lose a majority of their revenue, that won’t help them pay other expenses.”

‘Devastating ripple effect’

There could be a “devastating” ripple effect if closures persist well into the summer, explained Carrier, who is also a member of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition’s board of directors.

According to the state’s tourism office, “Connecticut’s tourism industry continues to be a proven generator of business sales, tax revenues and statewide jobs.” The industry posted $15.5 billion in total sales in 2017, the state tourism office reported, and generated $2.2 billion in tax revenues, including $960 million in state and local taxes.

The Hilton Mystic alone, Carrier said, brings in 30,000 to 35,000 unique guests to the area every summer. Combine that with visitors to the many other hotels and “you’re talking millions of people coming through the region every summer.”

“Never mind how those people support business at full-service hotels, select service hotels, or the inns,” he said. “They are also spending money in the region, they are spending money in our town. They are going to the restaurants. They are getting lunch, dinner and drinks.”

Lose those visitors, “and there will really be a challenge to the region’s economic ecosystem,” Carrier said. “The vaporizing of one business in one sector is inextricably linked to every other market.”

Connecticut Lodging Association Executive Director Ginny Kozlowski noted lodging is the eighth-largest sector in the state and generated $130 million in hotel occupancy tax receipts in fiscal year 2019. She said by phone this past week that since Lamont signed the executive order on lodging, at least half of the 74,000 “direct and indirect employees” in Connecticut’s lodging sector are now unemployed.

“Between the amount hotels pay towns in property tax and the number of workers that are now employed, there is a lot at stake,” she said. She said she believed an announcement about where lodging will fit into the state’s reopening plan will be made this coming week. The association hopes that hotels are back in business by June or July.

Clean and confident

Kozlowski said the state’s reopening advisory group is discussing what cleaning protocols and PPE requirements will look like for the lodging sector, with a focus on keeping rooms clean and patrons and employees safe, all while building back consumer confidence.

“I hear members’ concerns about their ability to reopen and start to see revenue, but we need to do it in a safe and meaningful way,” she said. “The reason we are in this situation today with the pandemic is because people were traveling. You cannot ignore the science and how this virus is transmitted and propelled in high-contact and enclosed spaces, and lodging is definitely high-contact. If we backtrack, we will see more people unemployed and there will be even more businesses unable to make it.”

“Just looking at the summer, I don’t know how many people are going to travel,” Kozlowski said. “Part of it will be due to financial reasons and the other part of it is fear. If we get the fear correct, great. Because then consumer confidence will increase and they will feel less concerned about their financial situation.”

The lodging industry also likely will abide by specific cleaning and safety guidelines based on those issued by major lodging and tourism brands such as AirBnB and Hilton, as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kozlowski said.

“All the major brands are very much aware that they want to reassure the public that we are safe, that they are safe that their associates are safe,” Carrier said.

The Hilton brand, he explained, has put together a “Clean Stay” program, teaming up with Lysol and the Mayo Clinic to ensure rooms are even more thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between stays, to assure guests that they are safe.

Besides disinfecting high-touch surfaces and cleaning common areas more frequently, pens, paper pads and other high-touch items will be removed from rooms, among many other protocols. The hotel chain will provide “contactless check-in,” Carrier said, and cleaning attendants will place a sticker seal on the door after cleaning a room. When a guest sees the unbroken seal, they can know a cleaning employee was the last person in the room.

But for owners of smaller establishments, such as Josephine Guarnaccia of Mystic’s Mermaid Inn, the prospect of obtaining enough PPE and cleaning supplies to properly keep her inn’s four rooms clean is a source of concern.

Guarnaccia said in an interview she worried it will soon become even more difficult for small businesses without much “purchasing power” to obtain proper amounts of PPE and cleaning supplies, including gloves and disinfectant, once a flood of restaurants and other businesses start reopening.

Though she said she has lost thousands of dollars in income since closing, she said she wouldn’t be quick to rush back to open again until she was absolutely positive those staying can be as safe as possible.

“I’m just very leery because it’s a big responsibility,” Guarnaccia said. “I’m not prepared to jump in with both feet until I really see the numbers going down.”

Cleaning, however, has not been as much of a concern for East Lyme’s Niantic Inn, which has stayed open housing essential workers from Millstone Power Station as it refuels one of its nuclear reactors this month.

General manager Stacy Mayo said she is more concerned that people may simply decide not to travel and stay in the 24-room inn this summer. She said that many of her reservations have been canceled, both over fear of traveling and because of canceled town and casino events.

“One person called today looking to cancel because they read they would not be able to use the town’s public beaches as a nonresident,” Mayo said. “I have a whole block of people who normally come for Celebrate East Lyme who also canceled.”

Kozlowski argued that not all was lost for the summer, noting the state’s tourism office was planning a campaign to encourage “stay-cations” or travel to other parts of the state where Connecticut’s 3.5 million residents may not have visited before.

“If you live in Litchfield, and you want to get away but not go too far, you might want to spend four to five days on the shoreline,” she said. “We have lakes, trails, biking, hiking. We can go berry picking. There’s a lot to do here. If we can see those businesses attract visitors and make clear their safety is being considered, people might decide they want to get away for three days.”

She added that while Americans believe they’re entitled to vacation, it doesn’t have to cover a large distance.

“Whether you go to a hotel 1,000 miles away, or here in your state, you are still going to find hospitality, and you are still going to get smiling faces with masks on,” she said.

m.biekert@theday.com

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