Even though stay-at-home orders are in place and non-essential businesses are closed, Prince William County officials are looking to the future.
Ann Marie Maher, the county’s tourism director, said the first phase of the reopening should begin in May, and the county will be leveraging its location along Interstate 66 and Interstate 95 to attract “drive-in” visitors.
For example, she said, some of the country’s 8 million recreational vehicle owners will likely start to travel. “That is good news because we want to welcome all visitors. If that’s the way it’s going to start, it’s all good.”
Maher and other local and state tourism and economic development officials spoke during a virtual meeting Tuesday organized by the Prince William Chamber of Commerce.
Maher said she expects some airline travel to resume in July and August. “The impetus to travel is going to be all about safety and health and wellness and sanitation and those concerns being addressed.”
The USA BMX and Tough Mudder events are still scheduled to be held in Prince William in August, she added.
Hotel occupancy rates have fallen into the 20% range both locally and statewide since the coronavirus pandemic began in early March. Maher said that is actually better than the county expected, and that the county’s hotels are still accommodating essential travelers such as truckers, construction employees and medical workers
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, said during the chamber event that over 140 hotels have closed statewide – mostly full-service leisure hotels such as the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs and the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg.
“The fact that many of your hotels [in Prince William] are select service makes it a little bit easier to survive,” he added.
About 36,000 hotel jobs have been eliminated statewide since early March, Terry said.
The story is even worse in the restaurant industry, where nearly 250,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed. Terry said 74% of restaurants are still operating statewide, but that number is artificially high because it includes fast-food chains with drive-throughs. Full-service restaurants, which are only able to offer carry out and delivery, have lost about 80% of their revenue, he said.
Terry said the state is working on guidelines for restaurants and hotels when businesses are allowed to begin reopening. Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered all non-essential businesses to remain closed until at least May 8 but has established a task force of business leaders to help guide the reopening.
For restaurants, those guidelines will most likely include limited seating to ensure social distancing can be maintained, as well as strict sanitation requirements, Terry said.
The picture is less clear for large attractions such as the Kings Dominion theme park in Doswell, he said.
“The longer things get pushed back, the less likely it is they are going to be able to open and get staffed. The question is what sort of occupancy can they have and how does that work for them?” Terry added. “I hope they do [open this year], and I think they’re trying to figure that out right now.”
The county is developing tools to assist other local businesses, said Christina Winn, Prince William’s director of economic development. These include a grant program for small businesses that the Board of County Supervisors was scheduled to consider Tuesday evening.
The county has also launched a website with business resources (www.princewilliamcounty.biz) and is providing free business counseling services through George Mason University’s Small Business Development Center, Winn said.