In Beach Town, Waves Of Reopening

By Laura Moore, posted May 22, 2020
Drifter’s Reef Hotel in Carolina Beach is following health department guidelines, according to its owner, the town’s mayor, LeAnn Pierce. (Photo by Suzi Drake)
Business owners on Pleasure Island, which includes the New Hanover County towns of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, share a measured enthusiasm as the phases of reopening from coronavirus restrictions unfold. Few expect a return to “normal” any time soon, but many said they are ready to do what needs to be done to keep their businesses open and safe.

Hotel prep included shields, dividing lobby

Tom Ullring, general manager of Courtyard by Marriott Carolina Beach, prepared for weeks before reopening May 8.
Tasks included installing shields at the front desk, disinfecting all surfaces and dividing the lobby into 6-foot sections to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Public spaces like the indoor pool and gym remain closed, and masks are worn by all employees.
“We want to ensure that each touch point is disinfected properly, down to the smallest little details,” Ullring said.
He said the loss of months of hotel occupancy taxes “will be the biggest hit to our island.”
Moving ahead, Ullring said the plan is to “be smart, play it safe. It is unpredictable, something none of us has ever seen before. We have done our best with the cards we have been dealt.”
Carolina Beach Mayor LeAnn Pierce, owner of the Drifter’s Reef Hotel, said she is excited to reopen, but is most concerned with ensuring the safety of the beach community.
“As a hotel owner, I understand. I have been in the hotel business for 25 years, and this is the longest we have ever been closed. A lot of people are hurting right now, and I get it,” Pierce said. “I totally understand, but balancing the public’s health and safety and the economy is a tricky scenario.”
At her hotel, Pierce is working with the health department’s guidelines and taking the necessary precautions to “minimize the risks.” This includes changing to bleach-friendly bedding, and staff will wear masks and change gloves between rooms upon cleaning. Pierce has also employed a local company to ensure the highest level of disinfecting and sanitizing.
“We will open up, but let’s do it smart,” Pierce said.
Pierce is not expecting the typical numbers of tourists.
“If I had to guess, I expect it to be down. There’s not going to be a huge rush to travel,” Pierce said.

Chamber keeps track of the economic impact

Lynn Halterman, chair of the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce board and a small business owner, acknowledged the toll the pandemic has taken on the local economy.
“It goes without saying that Pleasure Island has suffered, especially our local businesses,” Halterman said. “Sixty percent of our revenues to any business is driven by tourism, and 40% is made up of locals supporting local business.”
Halterman said getting back to business “can’t happen fast enough . . . Economics wise, this is unprecedented, and a lot of people are hurting.”
He commended the restaurants that have reopened and created limited menus offering to-go and delivery services, but recognizes that others have been forced to close, including losing “a couple of boardwalk restaurants that have shuttered already.”
But opening the beaches again is “a big deal,” especially for a “community that thrives on tourism,” he said.
“Restaurant capacity will not be the same. Instead of 100 people, they can only have 50, and outside seating will put them in a better position that inside in a confined space. Thank God a lot of ours have that,” Halterman said.
He said he does not anticipate a wave of tourism pouring back into the community.
“Will tourists return in droves? I doubt it. It’ll come back, but it will trickle back slowly,” he said.
This provides the biggest hit to the community’s coffers since Room Occupancy Taxes from hotels, motels and short-term rentals have already lost significant ground with months of closures.
With revenues depleted, Pleasure Island has been forced to cancel or postpone annual events, including the Beach Music Festival, as well as the weekly fireworks display and movies in the park.
“No one wants to get anyone sick, and it only takes one,” Halterman said.

Restaurant changes with the COVID-19 times

Pete Donat, owner of Havana’s Restaurant in Carolina Beach, is “getting excited” at the prospect of reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a long stretch for us,” Donat said. “I have been all over the spectrum in terms of just not knowing the answer to tomorrow’s questions.”
Donat and his general manager made use of the downtime to do some renovations and painting.
“We did some rearranging, doing a refresh of the bar and in the long run, it will pay off if and when we get to reopen,” Donat said.
Havana’s opened for delivery and takeout orders April 30 with a special menu available every day from noon to 8 p.m., but Donat is ready to get back to a more familiar, although with new procedures, way of doing things.
His goal has remained the same throughout his career in the restaurant industry: “To feed locals and feed tourists starting to come down now that beaches started to reopen.”
Donat said he credits town officials for their support during this difficult time for business owners.
“All our elected officials are really pro-business, and it’s nice being down on Carolina Beach where they really understand the importance of getting small businesses open,” Donat emphasized. “We have to be safe, but we have to be open too.”
Donat had to furlough his employees at the outset of the pandemic, but he was able to bring back his seven managers full time and began hiring and rehiring earlier this month.
“Each day we’re closed, it is one day closer to being closed permanently. We only have a small window to make our money, which typically starts at St. Patrick’s Day and ends at Labor Day,” he said, “so it’s not only being closed, but it is also going into a lot of debt.”
Tables were taken out of the restaurant to allow social distancing, and Donat said he also looks forward to making use of the restaurant’s outside dining area.
“My No. 1 is for employees and customers to be healthy and safe,” he said. “It is a great option. Open air is better than closed air.”

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