In Wednesday’s press conference, Governor Larry Hogan and Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services Fran Phillips stressed that just because you can do something, it does not mean that you should. This dilemma is intensifying for many Marylanders as indoor dining is set to kick off along with the reopening of outdoor recreational activities such as amusement parks and miniature golf. Since Ocean City hotels reopened in May, employees have been working around the clock to educate its employees about new safety precautions that must be taken to ensure the safety of tourists.
Bringing back tourists and restarting the economy are paramount steps for Ocean City. Hotel occupancy was just 24.6% in April when lodging was restricted to only essential workers as compared to 50.7% occupancy in April 2019. Susan Jones, Executive Director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association says that this has been “an economic disaster”. Since mid-May, hotels across Ocean City have been allowed to resume operations, but every hotel took a different approach. “Mostly everyone is open now, but when the stay-at-home order was lifted, not every hotel opened. Some took a wait-and-see approach.”, says Jones.
Another remaining concern is the shortage of employees to fill the thousands of seasonal jobs that Ocean City provides. Jones adds that J-1 workers have not arrived and that there are “lots of people and not a lot of employees. We have to find out how to service these tourists.”
If you’re nervous about staying safe while in Ocean City, local hotels say that plenty of plans are being put in place to reassure visitors. At both the Clarion Resort and the Aloft, social distancing and masks are required, specifically in common areas, and signs are posted all over to remind visitors of these mandates. Managers at both hotels say that housekeeping is not visiting rooms daily. Instead, cleaning will not be completed until the end of your stay. A manager for the Clarion Resort says that they are “paying close attention to high-touch areas…and we did just order several electrostatic spray machines to spray down rooms.”
The Clarion is among many Ocean City businesses missing J-1 employees. Instead, the Clarion is using outside contractors for laundry and other cleaning services. Cleaning protocols are similar at the Aloft, but they have not suffered from a fragmented workforce like the Clarion. A salesperson at the Aloft says that nearly all employees have returned and that Aloft does not typically employ J-1 workers. Pools at both hotels are open at limited capacity. Both hotels insist that the perfect weather over the last few weeks has made Ocean City a post-quarantine destination and that visitors are surely returning, even though it might not be back to normal just yet.
In another effort to promote safety, The Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association and other organizations have partnered with The Maryland Center for Hospitality Training and have bought royalties to the “Back to Work Training Program”. Susan Jones says that this two-hour webinar training provides employees with a look at the science behind COVID-19 as well as proper safety measures. At the end of the webinar, employees will earn a “Back to Safety” certification. To learn more about the training program, click here. Jones and fellow economic development leaders also gathered in April to develop safety precautions for employees in the hospitality industry. These guidelines were sent to Annapolis and some were even adopted by the state of Maryland. Finally, Jones adds that an app is eventually going to be developed to show tourists what businesses have signed the governor’s “Back to Business” pledge.
Even though business leaders are working hard to get the local economy running, many people are still nervous about traveling. Jones says that getting people to travel and stopping the stigma is “another burden”. However, between new advertisements from local business leaders and Mayor Rick Meehan’s “Welcome Back” campaign, there is hope that visitors will come to the beach and save the summer season, all while staying safe.
Despite the low occupancy numbers in April, Jones is personally optimistic that the hot and sunny weather, along with appropriate safety protocols, will bring people back to the beach. “One of the good things is that in every study I have seen, we are very fortunate to be in this location. People are not going to feel as safe to fly, and Ocean City is in driving distance to one-third of the nation’s population. It is very easy to social distance on the beach.”, says Jones.
Despite the COVID-19 calamity, tourists can have faith that if they visit Ocean City, the hospitality industry has multiple safeguards in place to ensure the welfare of all visitors.