Reposted from The Public's Radio. The original article can be found here.
Tourism industry, workers struggle in Newport as COVID-19 restrictions stretch into summer
It was a Wednesday afternoon in March when Eric Crosby realized that this year might become one long off-season. He had just finished rehearsal for an upcoming show at the Newport Playhouse & Cabaret Restaurant, where he’s the manager.
“You know I was all jazzed up and ready to go because, you know, I just spent the last two, three hours singing and dancing — having a great time,” Crosby said. “And I walked into the office and I saw the owner’s face and I’m like, ‘Uh oh. What’s going on?’”
Crosby had already been receiving unemployment benefits during January and February — the Playhouse’s winter intermission. Then, just as things were starting to pick up, news reports about the virus spreading about the country became hard to ignore. Crosby and his colleagues worried that the theater’s largely senior clientele was particularly vulnerable.
“And that’s when we decided...that we...we had to close,” he said.
For many in Newport’s tourism and hospitality industries, the pandemic hit at the worst possible time of year.
Every summer, visitors flock to the historic coastal city. These warmer months are vital to many business owners, who collect enough cash in the summer season to survive the island’s quieter months.
This year, Newport can’t count on that normal influx of business from vacationers. In May, Rhode Island’s mandatory quarantine for out-of-state travelers delayed the start of the tourism season.
Visitors are now beginning to return. In late June, hotels reached 78 percent occupancy on the weekends. But social distancing requirements mean many businesses remain shuttered, and festivals that draw thousands of attendees have been called off.
Erin Donovan-Boyle, the executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, said Newport may lose up to 5,000 jobs this season because of the decline in tourism spending. Some of these positions would have gone to out-of-town workers, but Donovan-Boyle said she's most concerned that Newport’s slow summer will disproportionately hurt locals who were already financially vulnerable.
“It’s the individuals that were making less than 40,000 dollars a year that would be impacted the most because of the level of their position. And because of their natural insecurity even at great times,” Donovan-Boyle said.
As Rhode Island gradually reopens, more businesses may be able to bring employees back. Donovan-Boyle fears that by the time this happens, seasonal visitors will already be packing up.
“As we project, the phasing up to get back to full capacity, or at least more capacity, when that happens — you know, our economy is really slowing down naturally,” she said. Newport is no stranger to seismic shifts in its economic landscape. In 1973, President Richard Nixon’s administration abruptly withdrew the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet from Newport, slashing over 14,000 jobs on Aquidneck Island. Unemployment rose to nearly 20 percent in the move’s aftermath, and Newport rebuilt its economy largely around tourism. Decades later, some say the pandemic has laid bare the extent to which local businesses and organizations — for better or for worse — rely on seasonal visitors.
Trudy Coxe is the executive director of the Preservation Society of Newport County, which gives tours of the iconic Newport mansions. In early June, the organization laid off more than 200 employees — 69 percent of its staff. “Just one thing after another just kept falling around us,” Coxe said. “So having to make that decision was really painful, and it created a little bit of disbelief like — This can’t possibly be. This is real?” The Preservation Society has now reopened two of its properties, but Coxe said she’s still concerned about the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. “So we have a complicated few months ahead, really complicated. But we will make it. We will make it. I guess I can’t believe after 75 years we wouldn’t make it,” she said.
Newport is all but guaranteed to lose the financial boost of cruise ships that used to dock and unload passengers during the autumn months. For now, Discover Newport is pivoting to focus on New England travelers. “For a certain segment of the American population, it may be a long time before they travel again,” said Discover Newport CEO Evan Smith. “But our messaging is basically wrapped around, you know, ‘We’re going to be here when you’re ready to travel.’”
For some of the locals who find themselves out of work, those visitors can’t come soon enough. Brandon Aglio recently lost both his full-time and part-time position at two of Newport’s historical institutions. “I’m still in this weird shock...I’m going to kind of wake up and go, ‘Hey, I don’t have a job anymore,’” Aglio said. “My job is to kind of go back on to the computer and look for a new job. And try to figure out, as a 33 year old, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”. The last tour Aglio gave was in February, and he says he misses it desperately. “I can, you know, stand in a spot in Newport and discuss its relevance probably almost anywhere, at least between Thames Street and Bellevue. You know, so that will always be part of my life,” he said. “But, you know, I have to think about economically how I’m going to survive.” Aglio would love to stay in Newport and continue teaching visitors about the city’s history. But while some of Newport’s institutions wait it out for travelers to return, he’s not sure if he can.
Antonia Ayres-Brown can be reached at email@example.com.