Like much of North Carolina’s economy, the $25-billion-a-year tourist industry has ground to a halt because of the coronavirus. And on the Outer Banks, where the economy depends almost entirely on visitors, the timing could scarcely be worse.
Local officials have temporarily closed the string of barrier islands to outsiders, just as the tourism season would normally be gearing up.
“The bad part for us, you know, we're seasonal business, and like the other 300 plus restaurants here on the Outer Banks, we're all in this together," said Ervin Bateman, who owns Sugar Creek Seafood Restaurant in Nags Head.
It was supposed to be open by now, but instead it’s locked up and all 46 of his employees are on unemployment.
The local officials that govern the Outer Banks decided the safest way to manage the pandemic was to bar visitors until at least April 30. They’ve been developing plans for reopening, but for now It’s unclear to business owners like Bateman when - and under what rules - they’ll be able to open, and how tourists will respond.
Like everyone else on the Outer Banks, Bateman deals almost routinely with setbacks from hurricanes. He says three big storms have flooded his restaurant in the past three years. But he’s never faced this kind of uncertainty.
“Seventy-five percent of all the business I do, is done in those summertime months,” he said. “Now, I’m going to lose, probably, May. I’ve already lost April. So I got June, July and August that I've got all the business I should be doing. If I don't do that, what am I gonna do?”
“My guess and my hope for us would be the fact that maybe, the end of this month, you know, by the 15th of May, maybe we can open up in some fashion and salvage some kind of season.”
But, he’s had to tell his employees that really all he can do is guess.
Businesses Plan For When Officials Lift Stay-At-Home Orders
Across the Outer Banks, business owners and their employees are following the news closely and wondering what the stew of upcoming federal, state and local decisions about reopening will mean for them.
Bateman said he’s been going through the possibilities in his head. How to keep surfaces everywhere in the restaurant disinfected, how to reduce the number of tables so they can be arranged for safe spacing. And trying to prepare himself to deal with whatever rules he’s eventually given to work with.
“We have to let it (reopening plans) be presented to us, and then it's our job as business people to think out of the box, completely differently, improvise when we can,” he said. “It might be with more outdoor seating."
Bateman could accommodate outdoor more easily than many restaurateurs. He has 40 seats on a waterside deck and two gazebos that he usually uses for private events.
"That would be something that would benefit me, but it's not going to benefit someone in a strip mall, that’s got 15 seats, and they're in a closed area," he said. "So how do you address all these issues?"
And he also wonders how customers will react. Some may be reluctant to dine out even months after it’s allowed. Other people may decide a vacation doesn’t make sense at all. Or may no longer be able to afford one.
Few people right now have a better sense of what would-be Outer Banks vacationers are thinking than Clark Twiddy. His family’s business, Twiddy & Company, manages about 1,100 rental homes on the Outer Banks.
“Just about everybody in our industry is trying to figure out what kind of demand may return on the other side of this restriction, but also figuring out how to ramp back up very quickly, while still simultaneously figuring out how to ramp back down very quickly,” he said.
Meaning, how can businesses ramp up quickly for a shortened season, then do their normal ramp DOWN as the season trails off.
A normal season, Twiddy said, follows a bell-shaped curve for reservations - a curve that would normally be starting now with a trickle of rentals, jump sharply after school lets out, then trail off after school starts back. His work force is about 140 year-round, but rises to 500 in the summer, and that increase and decrease aren’t simple to manage.
The North Carolina Real Estate Commission has ruled that property managers must refund rental money for reservations during the period when vacationers aren’t allowed on the islands.
The uncertainty surrounding how the pandemic plays out has made it unclear what renters will do after that.
“We are not seeing, right now, whole scale cancellations, although we are seeing some,” Twiddy said. “So right now we're optimistic, but it's complicated.”
A bright spot, he said, is that more than half who are canceling reservations for spring are rescheduling for the fall or next year, he said. But the complicated part will come if the closure is extended, and restarting comes in phases of some kind.
Then, when the Outer Banks are open for everyone again, it’s possible some vacationers will be under orders in their own states to stay home.
Twiddy said the immediate effects of the pandemic will be on what he calls “the three R’s”: restaurants; retail; and real estate.
But visitors so dominate the local economy that if much of the season is lost, there will be a cascade of effects, some of it because tax receipts to local government will fall.
“Over the horizon, we'll see impacts to our school system, our nonprofits, our government resources that I think are going to take months if not years to play out,” he said.
Dare County Commission chairman Bob Woodard is one of those local officials who’s trying to figure out how best to restart the Outer Banks economy. He’s a member of the Dare panel called the Control Group that made the decision to stop access by visitors.
He said it has begun work on a plan for reopening, and whatever the terms, they should be announced far enough ahead so business owners are ready.
“Certainly the challenges are going to be the plan, and how we just we just can't open the doors for a huge flow in here,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to give our restaurant folks an opportunity to get back up and running and get staff in."
"The other challenge is giving our property management firms ample time to get their places open up in time so that they can handle an influx. It’s just a multitude of challenges for all of them."
Some of the biggest challenges are on Ocracoke Island at the southern end of the Outer Banks. Hundreds there, including commercial fisherman Albert O’Neal, were displaced last September after Hurricane Dorian.
His oyster farm was destroyed by that storm, and the gift shop that he and his wife own was damaged by flooding. Like many other homeowners and business owners on the island, O’Neal said that he hadn’t even finished rebuilding.
“The house is still being worked on, we’re still working on it daily and the gift shop is pretty close to being able to move stuff back in it,” O’Neal said
He said many businesses on the island needed a good summer to help them get back on their feet, and instead now may close for good.
The tourist season for some starts a little earlier on Ocracoke for some businesses because people come to fish, but that’s not happening now, he said. And the market for fish landed commercially has plummeted because restaurants aren’t buying.
Twiddy, the property management executive, said the coronavirus could change the nature of a vacation on the Outer Banks. He says that when members of his wife’s family visit from Texas, he points them to restaurants and other places and activities that regular visitors turn into annual family rituals. Not all will be open this year, and some may be gone for good after the pandemic.
“The takeaway from that is I think our vacationing families on the Outer Banks may this year have to invent some new traditions. And we may have to depart from some of the long standing traditions and create some new traditions," he said. "So I think that will be one of the hallmarks of an Outer Banks vacation this year will be resiliency, and then perhaps new traditions.”
One of the longest-running vacation traditions in the state — attending the summer outdoor drama The Lost Colony — won’t be possible this year. The organizers looked down the barrel of all that uncertainty, and cancelled the season for the first time since World War II.
Twiddy fears that may be only one of many changes on the Outer Banks, and some of those changes may be permanent.
“I'm a little worried that the restaurants that we enjoy, the tacos that we enjoy while we're sunburned in our swim trunks... I'm a little worried they may not be there,” he said.