Tahoe tourism industry facing ‘devastating and unprecedented’ impacts
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif — Unprecedented. That’s the word officials are using to describe the times we are in, and for a region that relies on tourism revenue, it’s scary to think about the impact COVID-19 is having, and will have, on communities around Lake Tahoe.
It’s to the point where the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, which advertises all over the world trying to bring people to the basin, told visitors Thursday to stay away.
“This is something I thought I’d never have to say throughout my tourism career, but please stay home at this time,” said LTVA President Carol Chaplin in a press release. “The safety of our visitors and locals alike is of utmost importance, and in order to combat this pandemic, we all need to do our part so we can enjoy the destination we love sooner.
“Once it is deemed safe by the health experts, we can welcome you with open arms and will be joining you.”
Chaplin said LTVA is pausing advertising and working to spread the message of social distancing.
Meanwhile, as several feet of snow fell over the past few days to give ski resorts a Miracle March, ski resorts across the region closed.
Diamond Peak, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Northstar and Kirkwood will not reopen this season, and there is a good chance Heavenly and the rest are done too, meaning hundreds of seasonal workers are out of work sooner than expected.
Vail Resorts will be pay its employees through March 22, and lodging employees will be paid through Tuesday, March 24.
“Moving forward, full-time and part-time winter seasonal employees will end their seasons as of this weekend, now that we have decided to close for the remainder of the winter season,” said Joanna McWilliams, Vail’s communications manager for the Tahoe Region. “To ensure that our seasonal employees continue to have access to medical care during this transition, we will extend health benefits coverage through April at no cost to employees who are currently enrolled.
“We understand that seasonal employees may have financial or other hardships during this transition, and our Epic Promise Employee Foundation will review those situations to help provide support.”
Heavenly and Kirkwood will keep all full time, year-round salaried and hourly employees without using vacation or sick time.
This time of year, many of the contracts for J-1 visa employees are up, but some had their contracts ended early. A J-1 visa allows people to participate in work or study based exchange visitor programs.
The Tribune reached out to CCUSA and CIEE, two of the companies Vail contracts with to hire J-1 employees, and did not hear back for comment on whether those employees would be able to get home due to travel restrictions.
However, a statement on CIEE’s website said, “As of March 17, CIEE is recommending that all CIEE Work & Travel USA participants currently in the U.S. return home as soon as possible.”
“We understand that many countries have closed their borders to both nationals and foreigners,” the statement continued. “While participants may not be able to return home immediately, they should begin to make plans to return home as soon as they are able. Participants should contact their international representative for assistance booking flights.”
While this is an unfortunate situation for seasonal employees, South Lake City Mayor Jason Collin said in a press conference Wednesday that it is affecting everyone.
“This is a bigger issue than just the seasonal workers,” Collin said.
Due to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recommendation that restaurants and bars close or operate at half capacity, many local businesses are already feeling the pressure.
Ten Crows BBQ will be operating at half capacity. General Manager Jon Martinez said, “they are taking this seriously,” and will continue to operate at half capacity until they hear otherwise from the state or city.
Not all bars have the luxury of remaining open. Turn 3 is shutting down during the crisis.
“We are a small place so can’t spread people out,” said owner Dan Jansen. “I don’t know if I’ll survive this.”
Jansen is hoping insurances and subsidies will help him get over the hump.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak called for non-essential businesses, including casinos, to shut their doors for 30 days as well, a move that will likely have a financial impact on the region, although it’s too soon to know what kind of impact.
A press release from Caesars Entertainment, which owns Harrah’s and Harveys Lake Tahoe, said it has more than $2.8 billion of cash on hand.
“While the company believes its current cash position is more than sufficient to fund its obligations, it is also taking appropriate measures to reduce operating and capital expenses, as necessary,” the press release said.
With the resorts and casinos closing, the tourism industry is taking a hit.
“The impact, of course, is devastating and unprecedented. But our destination is not alone in this and we are constantly in touch and learning from each other,” Chaplin said. “We have no way to anticipate recovery, however, we know that travel and tourism always does rebound, hopefully by summer.”
Some people are trying to take advantage of kids being out of school and traveling. AirBNB is offering refunds for booked trips, but VRBO is not offering refunds for short-term rentals.
Lake Tahoe Accommodations General Manager Josh Priou said he is allowing customers to reschedule their reservations at any time and is offering guests a free night if they keep their reservation as is.
Priou also said he is still encouraging people to come to Tahoe but he is taking precautions to keep the rentals clean and disinfected while keeping the cleaning staff safe.
The City Council is also taking into consideration the hit the city will take from this pandemic.
“It’s going to take a real coordinated strategy to bounce back,” Collin said. “It’s our next priority behind the health and welfare of the community.”
Collin said financial aid from the state and federal government will help in the recovery. In the meantime, the city is “committed to keeping essential services up and running,” Collin said.
Laney Griffo is a reporter with the Tahoe Daily Tribune in South Lake Tahoe.
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