State prepares guidelines for reopening of tourist attractions
Gov. Henry Mcmaster says allowing tourist attractions to open for the Memorial Day weekend is a good recommendation and he hopes to make a decision soon on the matter.
“We’ll take a good look at it,” Mcmaster said Tuesday after a meeting of Accelerate SC, a task force he formed and charged with helping the state plan for reopening the economy safely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision would come as the tourism industry has seen a roughly $2 billion drop in tourism-related spending between March 15 and May 9 amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Travel Association.
That represents a more than 80% drop in travel-related spending in South Carolina, according to an analysis of the Travel Association’s data.
Meanwhile hotels are making changes to how they operate in order to make sure guests feel safe when they stay overnight, and attractions and amusement parks are preparing to welcome customers again.
With Memorial Day weekend coming up, amusements and attractions would benefit from being open on what is typically a busy weekend for travel, said Duane Parrish, director of the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism agency.
Parrish shared the recommendation as Accelerate SC members — made up of health care officials, elected leaders and business leaders — met to discuss various proposed guidelines for reopening the economy.
In recent weeks, however, Mcmaster has eased restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He has allowed customers to dine-in at restaurants, clothing and jewelry stores to reopen, salons and barbershops to see clients again, and allowed people to again go to beaches and public boat docks to reopen.
As a sign of pent up demand, there were large crowds in Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head last weekend, when pools and attractions were closed.
“Opening up pools (Monday), opening attractions this weekend, would relieve some of that pressure of people being together in one place,” Parrish said.
As the coronavirus spread across the country, states imposed various orders calling on people to stay home unless they were getting essential goods or services or going to work. As a consequence, tourism travel and spending dramatically dropped. The tourism industry has been hit hard during the coronavirus pandemic.
Between March 15 and May 9, the state has lost out on $229 million in federal, state and local tax revenue.
Because of the COVID-19 induced economic slow down, officials have estimated tourism spending in the state could be cut in half by the end of the year, from $24.5 billion to $12.2 billion.
As Mcmaster weighs the next phase of reopening the economy, some attractions are still putting together their own plans for how to operate amid the pandemic.
“I’m confident all of them have a plan in place for their individual attraction,” Parrish said.
The amusements and attractions range from small activities such as mini golf to large parks such as Carowinds along the North Carolina-south Carolina border. Parrish added, however, he doesn’t believe Carowinds would be ready to open this weekend. The theme park would also need clearance from North Carolina.
Carowinds, whose parent company is the Sandusky, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, originally scheduled to open for the season on March 21, but postponed opening for this year’s season.
“Based on the best information we have currently, we do not anticipate resuming operations at any of our parks in the near term,” Cedar Fair President and CEO Richard Zimmerman said in a news release earlier this month. “This projection remains fluid and subject to change as the situation evolves, including if state and local guidelines are modified.”
When attractions open, staff and customers will be encouraged to wear masks, and staff will constantly sanitize surfaces, according to guidelines presented to the Accelerate SC task force.
Among the recommendations for amusement parks is removing printed maps and brochures for guests to have. Staff would be advised to wipe down and disinfect lap bars, handles and seat belts or harnesses after each time they are used by a guest.
“Those are good rules,” Mcmaster said last week. “We’ll discuss them a little bit more, and then make decisions of when to implement them and how, (and whether to adopt) some or all of them, or maybe even some more.
One of those attractions preparing to reopen is Fun Warehouse in Myrtle Beach, which brought back roughly 20 employees who were laid off to learn new cleaning procedures and social distancing rules for when customers are allowed back in.
“We want to be a good part of the community, but of course we have a business to run,” said Tim Marks, vice president of Fun Warehouse. “We’re pretty much at wits end here. It ain’t going to be long before this extra money runs out.”
The 56,000 square-foot Fun Warehouse has a capacity of 1,200 people and offers laser tag, go karts, an arcade, roller skating and inflatable bounce houses.
If the amusement venue has the same limitations put on other businesses of 20% of posted capacity or five people per 1,000 square feet, Fun Warehouse could have 280 people.
“I’m going to follow the guidelines. I’m not going to have any more. I’m not going to have any less,” Marks said.
When Fun Warehouse reopens, laser tag capacity will be cut from 30 to 15 people at a time so workers can wipe down the equipment after each use. Staff will wipe down gokarts after each race, and clean the inflatables every half hour. Employees wipe down virtual reality headsets and guns after each use, but will also give guests their own wipes to clean off headsets too.
“Everything still is going to move a little slower,” Marks said.
The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden plans changes for when it eventually reopens, including using timed entries and limiting capacities at attractions within the park. Riverbanks plans to limit capacity to about 3,000 people.
Riverbanks will reopen attractions within its park in three phases, said Riverbanks Director of Communications Susan O’cain.
Capacity will be limited in those attractions that will be open, such as having only 20% capacity in the Aquarium-reptile Complex and Birdhouse, and allowing only up to two families at a time on the zoo’s Giraffe Overlook feeding areas.
HOTELS CHANGE OPERATIONS
If you’re going to visit out of town attractions in South Carolina and stay overnight, hotel operations may look different.
Even though Mcmaster never ordered hotels to close, hotels in the state have seen a dramatic drop in stays as travel has dropped since February.
Myrtle Beach, however, ordered its local hotels to shut down for several weeks. At one point more than 570 hotels in South Carolina had closed on their own.
In the first week of February, hotel occupancy was down 5.2% compared to the same week last year. For the week ending March 21, occupancy was down 47.7%. For the week that ended April 11, hotel occupancy was down 71.2% when compared to the same week of 2019, according to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
“So goes hotels, so goes other things,” Parrish said.
Hotel guests also shouldn’t expect to serve themselves at the complimentary breakfast. Guidelines put together by the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association recommend having staff members, wearing personal protective equipment, serve guests.
Also housekeeping probably won’t make beds every day for guests staying multiple nights. Guidelines include not having housekeepers enter rooms unless specifically requested by guests in order to cut down on interaction between staff and guests.
“Every time a housekeeper goes in there, they’re touching surfaces you’re going to touch, touching surfaces that you’ve touched,” said Bill Ellen the CEO of Experience Columbia. “We’re trying to eliminate that as much as possible, realizing it might not be the luxury and comfort you might be usually accustomed to, but we’re not in the usual world anymore right now.”
Room inventory may be limited. The Restaurant and Lodging Association recommends leaving a room vacant for 24 hours after a guest checks out so it could go through a deep cleaning.
Ellen said blocking off rooms for 24 hours after a checkout would most likely limit inventory to 50%.
Guests also may be asked to answer if they had any recent symptoms, been infected with the virus, or from where they’re visiting. Whether people could be denied a stay is still being worked out, Ellen said.
Employees at hotels also would wear masks and gloves, have their temperatures taken before shifts and be tested for COVID-19 prior to returning to work.
There would be frequent cleaning of door handles and elevator buttons, and limiting elevator usage to one person or one family at a time.
“We’re not going to get tourism back if guests don’t feel comfortable and safe,” Ellen said. “If we don’t take the precautions, they’re not going to feel that way .... There are some challenges; there are some inconveniences. But it’s better (than) the scenario of stay at home, and no travel, and shuttered hotels and closed restaurants.”
Reporter Maayan Schechter contributed to this article.
The lobby and front desk area at the Aloft hotel. Guests should not expect daily housekeeping at hotels, according to state guidelines.
Frankie’s Fun Park in Harbison may be one of several state attractions open for Memorial Day weekend.
Visitors will find changes at Riverbanks Zoo & Garden when it reopens, including timed entries and limiting capacity to about 3,000 people.