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Summer travel outlook: ‘We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel’

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Top US vacation spots are welcoming travelers for the first big holiday weekend of the Covid-19 vaccine era.

Now that, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40% of Americans are fully vaccinated, Memorial Day weekend seems to herald the start of a semi-normal summer, with at least 37 million people expected to travel over the holiday.

It would be difficult to completely return to business as usual with the threat of Covid-19 still very much in play for many Americans — and a lot of hotels and restaurants are still dealing with staffing issues and evolving restrictions related to the pandemic.

Miami implemented an outdoor-dining-only model for its restaurants last summer when cases were high, which complicated things for Justin Maas, the general manager of Stiltsville Fish Bar, a seafood and drinks restaurant in Miami Beach.

“We did have to close the doors. That one is the one that hurt a little more, because some of the hospitality venues in the area stayed open because they did have large enough outdoor dining,” Maas said. “We … started to lose some of our staff to that.

“And then after reopening, I think one of the hardest parts for our staff is actually overworking them, because it’s been such a hard task to acquire great candidates — or, in fact, any candidates for the position. So, the staff that we have actually is working, in some ways, six and seven days (per week).”

Patience with overworked employees at understaffed businesses is one thing some hospitality managers are asking for from the influx of travelers over Memorial Day weekend and beyond. But they’re also relieved to start welcoming back much bigger numbers of tourists — getting back to what one restaurateur thinks will be a more relaxed and optimistic summer.

Many people who have received Covid-19 vaccines are “doing it for themselves and for family members to make sure everyone’s well,” said Henry Delgado, the managing partner of Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in Miami Beach. “People just want to get back to normal. Things will gradually fall back in place and be where we were a year ago or 15 months ago. I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Hiring seasonal staff

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an activity-packed tourist spot popular with families, is still recovering from the pandemic’s blow to hospitality workers. Many employees weren’t needed over the past year as some businesses reduced guest capacity or closed entirely. As Americans return to traveling, Myrtle Beach is hiring seasonal staffers for spring and summer vacations.

Staffing has been a challenge in Miami as well, where tourism officials are anticipating at least as many travelers this Memorial Day weekend as they expected in 2019, said Rolando Aedo, the chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Rick Ueno, the general manager of W South Beach hotel, has staffed the hotel beyond its general, pre-pandemic staffing guidelines since demand spiked in January, he said via email.

In the week before May 25, Miami International Airport saw “its highest numbers since the pandemic began, with an average of 110,000 passengers per day, which is 90 percent of the traffic we had pre-pandemic,” said Greg Chin, the communications director for the aviation department of the Miami-Dade County government, via email.

Since they’re expecting even busier days this weekend, Chin added, the airport will have additional staff assigned to TSA checkpoints and check-in areas to help decongest long lines and enforce the federal mask mandate, which remains in place for transportation in concordance with CDC guidelines.

Many businesses bracing for the summer tourist season are taking care of their employees first by encouraging them to get vaccinated. Pop-up vaccination services, for example, will be available for hotel employees in Miami, Aedo said.

“The vaccine has made a positive impact,” Ueno said of any residual concerns. “We’re (seeing) so many signs of recovery as the rest of the world slowly opens back up. The pandemic taught us that we adapt and readapt and we’ll continue to do so as needed.”

Masks coming off (for some)

Since mask-wearing is optional in Florida for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, “you see the majority of guests now opting to not wear the mask, although we do still get some guests that do,” Maas said. “We’re fortunate in that we’re very open-air style and we do have outdoor seating. So, we do our best to accommodate everyone’s comfort level as far as pandemic precautions.”

Hawaii, on the other hand, has some of the country’s most stringent testing requirements for entry and aggressive masking policies. Hawaii Governor David Ige just announced this week that masks would no longer be required outdoors. The state’s indoor mask mandate is still in effect.

Honolulu is sticking to many safety precautions, according to Noelani Schilling-Wheeler, the executive director of the Oahu Visitors Bureau. Those include limiting capacity in some places, distancing and encouraging travelers to make reservations, since many places aren’t accepting walk-ins.

In Colorado Springs, mask mandates have been lifted for fully vaccinated people per the CDC’s latest guidelines, said Doug Price, the president and CEO of Visit Colorado Springs.

But some restrictions will still be in place this holiday weekend: At Weidner Field, the city’s new downtown stadium, staff will limit attendance to 50%, encourage physical distancing and offer cashless food services. Some businesses are still using reservation systems to manage busy times like the holiday weekend, so visitors should call ahead no matter where they’re going, Price said.

Las Vegas businesses on the cusp of going back to 100% capacity on June 1, when Clark County is scheduled to further relax pandemic restrictions. But the holiday weekend will still be limited to 80% capacity and physical distancing of 3 feet apart indoors.

Myrtle Beach keeps its Healthy Travel Information section updated to keep visitors informed of the latest on masks and more, said Karen Riordan, the president and CEO of Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB. While they’re no longer mandated inside, some businesses may still require them.

Nashville has seen tourism steadily increase recently and expects “that Memorial weekend will be our strongest yet,” said Deana Ivey, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, via email. All pandemic-related mandates have been lifted at the city level, Ivey added.

Easing into the season

Some businesses are taking time to adjust to relaxed restrictions. Smith & Wollensky’s Miami location is holding off on opening its bar until June 1, skipping the holiday weekend crowd.

“Smith & Wollensky bars have always been very popular,” Delgado said. “It’s on the water, it’s a great view, it’s people-watching. As soon as we open those bars, all bets are off. … We wanted to kind of just ease into it, rather than open the gates and let just everybody run wild. So, we’re taking the precautions to one, be ready, and two, make sure that when we do do it, we’re not going back and forth.”

Some restaurants — including Smith & Wollensky’s Miami location and Stiltsville Fish Bar — are still observing precautions such as distancing tables at least a few feet apart, utilizing outdoor patios, and asking their employees and sometimes the public to wear masks. And though some restaurateurs think that summer looks promising, the uncertainty sown by the earlier months of the pandemic hasn’t fully waned.

“Last year, as we went into summer, was very uncertain, just not knowing really what was going to happen next and really what was going to happen for the hospitality industry,” Maas said. In 2020 “we went into March, and it started out real nice. And by the middle of the month, obviously, it was like someone flipped a switch.”

“We’ll see how tourism is impacted now as travel to international destinations becomes an option again,” he added. Right now, many American travelers are still sticking closer to home.

After more than a year of volatile restrictions and disruptions, many travelers are also aiming to ease into the season — balancing concerns about variants and unvaccinated children with the urge to get back to something closer to a normal summer vacation.

Returning to somewhat normal is “very welcomed,” Maas said. “We’re seeing more happy and less overly cautious. Because I would say in the beginning and up until now, we saw much more (cautiousness). And now I think people are trying to get back to a new normal lifestyle — still paying some respect to sanitation and cleanliness issues, but also being able to live life and enjoy.”

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