By Caroline Watkins, Chatham News + Record Staff
By the time COVID-19 spread to Chatham County, Fleming and Brit Pfann made the difficult decision to move out of their home and into their bed and breakfast, The Inn at Celebrity Dairy.
Due to the losses they were expecting from COVID-19, they chose to rent out their former home for additional income.
“Moving out of our house and our home was pretty traumatic,” Fleming Pfann said. “But that was something that both Brit and I agreed on.”
The Inn sits on a 300-acre dairy farm just six miles east of Siler City. The B&B has been in operation since 1998, and has hosted an array of events, from weddings to anniversary parties.
Earlier this year, things were looking up for The Pfanns — that is, until COVID-19 hit.
“We had everybody cancel,” Fleming Pfann said. “We had a really big wedding canceled, a really big anniversary party canceled…over $50,000 worth of cancellations.”
The Inn at Celebrity Dairy is just one example of how hard the travel industry has been hit by COVID-19. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, nearly 28,000 hotel-related jobs have been lost in the U.S. as a result of COVID-19.
In Chatham County, COVID-19 interrupts a nine-year trend of consecutive increases in tourism revenue, according to the 2019 State of Chatham County Report.
With the county’s tourism industry generating $4.74 million in total payroll, according to the report, the effects of the industry’s downturn on the local economy continue to unfold.
Cheryl Conrad and Houston Blair, the owners of 458 West, a B&B located in Pittsboro, had no choice but to close their business for 10 weeks as a result of COVID-19. They saw the pandemic’s effects first-hand.
“When it all started, we were just gearing up for our busiest season of the year and we knew that it would affect it, but we didn’t really know to what extent,” Conrad said. “It didn’t take very long to figure it out, though.”
“I started working part time at a business just to try to offset some of the losses,” Blair said.
Unlike more established B&Bs in Chatham such as 458 West, Lucky Bar Farm was just preparing for its first summer as a business before COVID-19 hit. The B&B, which is located in Moncure, opened its doors in October.
The B&B had around a dozen guests cancel due to COVID-19. The couple agreed that giving their guests full refunds was the right thing to do, given the circumstances.
“We just gave the full refund and people were really just grateful,” Nancy Adams said.
Opening their doors again
Following Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to move North Carolina into Phase 2 on May 22, guests are slowly but surely beginning to make reservations in local B&Bs once again.
However, many of them are still concerned about what B&Bs are doing to keep their guests safe during the pandemic.
Local B&B owners say that they have been following a number of health and safety protocols established by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Some of the additional steps they are taking to keep their B&Bs clean include having disposable gloves and masks readily available for guests, setting up sanitation stations throughout the B&Bs, taking extra care of stripping and washing bed sheets and frequently disinfecting surfaces and common areas.
Some B&Bs have also taken part in initiatives such as the “Count on Me NC” campaign, which is “a public health initiative that empowers guests and businesses to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19,” according to CountOnMeNC.org.
“I am hopeful that our guests will see that Count On Me NC is a mutual pledge and that we are doing all we can to ensure safety, not just following the standards that were in place for environmental health guidelines prior to COVID-19, but the enhanced protocols,” Neha Shah, the director of the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention & Visitors Bureau, said. “The Count On Me NC initiative provides guidance, from professionals, in a time and a situation that is new for all of us.”
B&Bs are also taking additional measures to ensure social distancing on their properties, whether that includes staggering breakfast times to avoid overlaps between guests or serving meals to guests outside, where they might feel more comfortable dining.
Most of all, local B&Bs are encouraging guests to share their concerns.
“Pick up the phone, call, ask your questions,” Lucky Bar Farm’s Nancy Adams said. “Let us speak to you about what concerns you have on an individual basis, and we will be happy to answer any questions that you have and modify whatever we can to make you feel comfortable in your stay.”
An uncertain future
Despite the fact that guests are slowly starting to book at B&Bs again, owners believe a return to normalcy is still far from reach.
“In June last year, we had 82 reservations,” Conrad of 458 West said. “This year, we’ve had 10.”
And with warnings of a potential second wave in the fall, it’s hard to predict how long it will take for the tourism industry to bounce back.
“I don’t think we’re going to be out of this even by next spring,” Fleming Pfann of The Inn at Celebrity Dairy said.
Domestic visitors to and within Chatham County spent $36.9 million in 2018 alone, according to the 2019 State of Chatham County Report. Yet as a result of the industry’s losses already and an uncertain future ahead, Chatham’s tourism industry could be licking its COVID-caused wounds for the foreseeable future.
“I can’t predict the long-term effects, but through the research shared with us and our own landscape, we are forecasting that the devastation to the industry is severe enough that the recovery will be slow,” Shah said.
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