To reopen, or not to reopen?
While some hotels and resorts in the region never closed their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic, others that closed for more than a month have started to reopen to guests – ahead of what's usually one of their busiest holiday weekends.
Tourism is usually a hot ticket in Southwest Florida for the Memorial Day weekend, May 23-25 this year.
The holiday marks the unofficial start of summer, but it won't have the same draw this year, because of COVID-19.
Several hotels in the region are reopening for visitors this week, but their owners and managers aren't sure what to expect, with so many Floridians – and Americans – afraid to travel, or still unable to do so because of state and local travel restrictions in other parts of the country.
Among the properties reopening in Lee and Collier counties this week? The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club and nearby Inn on Fifth in downtown Naples and The Pink Shell Resort & Marina and Lani Kai Island Resort on Fort Myers Beach.
Phil McCabe, owner of the Inn on Fifth, closed his resort voluntarily in late March out of caution – and because customer demand dropped down to "near zero," he said.
While he's reopening the resort this Friday, business won't be anything near what it was at this time last year.
As for Memorial Day weekend, McCabe said he'll consider himself lucky if his occupancy hits 30%. It's usually at 100% – or near it.
"The demand is just not there," McCabe said. "And I don't see that changing until we somehow get over the fears and they fully reopen the state of Florida."
To his point, AAA will not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast for the first time in 20 years, because of the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
Anecdotal reports suggest fewer people will hit the road not just in Florida, but nationwide, compared to years past, for the holiday.
“Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend – the second-highest travel volume on record since AAA began tracking holiday travel volumes in 2000,” said Paula Twidale, a senior vice president for AAA Travel, in a statement. “With social distancing guidelines still in practice, this holiday weekend’s travel volume is likely to set a record low.”
Previous coverage: Hotel operators grapple with financial losses
Record low occupancy
Recent reports by research firm STR show occupancy at about 13% in Collier County – down by 80% from a year ago.
Occupancy in Lee County has run a little higher in recent weeks at more than 20%, but it's still off by more than 65% when compared to the same time last year.
Hotels and resorts were classified as essential businesses under the state's safer-at-home order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 29. So state rules allowed them to stay open for business through the crisis.
However, dozens of properties still closed in the Naples area alone, furloughing or laying off most of their employees.
Some hoteliers in the region interpreted the governor's executive order to mean they couldn't or shouldn't take any new reservations, while others, such as McCabe shut down because business virtually vanished overnight, so it no longer made economic sense to keep the doors open – or they thought it was just the right thing to do.
Others had to stop taking reservations because of stronger local orders that restricted visitation in such tourism hot spots as Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel.
The City Council on Sanibel and the town council for Fort Myers Beach both recently decided to allow hotels, motels and timeshares to reopen starting this week. Those rule changes followed the governor's decision to start easing up on statewide restrictions, excluding the hardest-hit counties, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The effective dates for allowing reservations to resume were one day apart – May 15 on Fort Myers Beach and May 16 on Sanibel.
The votes to relax those local restrictions didn't apply to vacation rentals, offered up through such services as Airbnb and HomeAway, because a statewide ban on them remained in effect when city and town leaders made their decisions, with uncertainty over when the governor might lift that prohibition.
Initially, commercial lodging on Sanibel will only be allowed to open at 50% capacity, with other restrictions.
Taking it slow
The Pink Shell, overseen by the Boykin Management Co., will reopen on Friday, the first day possible on Fort Myers Beach, even though occupancy for this weekend is only expected to be at 40% – or maybe less. It will get employees back to work and give the resort a little time to figure out the "new normal," ahead of the upcoming holiday weekend, which could be slightly busier than its first one back in business, said Robert Boykin, CEO and chairman.
The resort's new normal includes following new social distancing practices and many other safety guidelines that include everything from implementing more rigorous cleaning procedures to requiring all of its employees to wear masks.
Even if he could fill the resort to capacity for the holiday weekend, Boykin said he wouldn't want to so soon.
"We have to get up on our feet and see how this goes," he said. "We are going to learn a lot over the next few weeks."
Sanibel Captiva Beach Resorts will start welcoming overnight guests to West Wind Inn, Beachview Cottages and Castaways Cottages Saturday. The resort management company reopened 'Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa on Captiva May 1, coinciding with the governor's decision to start reopening the state's economy.
Meanwhile, South Seas Island Resort on Captiva will remain closed through the end of the month, because of what it management describes as "minimal changes" under phase one of the governor's reopening plan, according to its website.
Other hotels and resorts aren't throwing their arms open to guests just yet either, but plan to get up and running soon.
The Ritz-Carlton beach resort has set a reopening date of May 21, a few days before the upcoming holiday weekend, while its sister golf resort won't resume operations until July 1.
Demand played heavily into those decisions, as well as the lifting of local and state restrictions on everything from beaches to restaurants, said Jaime Moench, sales and marketing director for The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples.
The resorts will open in phases, with some amenities such as the spa and fitness centers, not reopening right away.
The beach resort's popular waterfront restaurant Gumbo Limbo will get a head start, opening Monday, following the state's phase one guidelines, which allowed restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity for indoor seating and for outdoor seating with tables kept 6 feet apart starting May 4 in most of the state.
Looking ahead, Moench said the waterfront resort won't be packed like it is usually for Memorial Day weekend, but demand is slowly starting to return as it opens up to reservations again.
"We are anticipating we will be somewhere around 50% capacity," she said. "But 50% capacity coming out of closed is 'quite busy.'"
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Coronavirus: Hotels reopening in Florida as restrictions ease