Garnet Holt opened her small woman’s clothing and gift store on Alabama Route 59 in early February with hopes of capturing large sales and big crowds during Spring Break.
The spring breakers never came thanks to coronavirus. Now, after an unexpected closure of The Lost Magnolia for more than a month, Holt and her 18-year-old daughter Blaise were busy preparing for a reopening this weekend hopeful that visitors arriving to coastal Alabama’s reopened beaches will support local businesses and be safe.
The beaches reopened Thursday for the first time since Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced their closure on March 20.
“I don’t want there to be a big outbreak and another big scare,” said Holt. “But for business people, I want tourism to pick up a little bit. I want it to be safe and for businesses to do what is asked of them.”
‘Get out and explore’
Indeed, many of the businesses reopening after the coronavirus pandemic forced them to close in March, are reopening with their own strict plans. Within stores are 6-foot measurements to keep patrons separated from each other while standing in line. Others have hand sanitizer stationed in areas where people can easily access them.
At The Beach Bazaar, a souvenir and gift shop in Gulf Shores, no more than 15 people will be allowed inside at once, according to manager Mary Lopez. The store will reopen Friday and operate from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“I don’t expect our store to be slammed,” said Lopez. “I know people are rushing here to go to the beaches, but I’m pretty sure they will want to get to the beach. They won’t be stopping here to get a bathing suit.”
Retail stores can reopen at 5 p.m. Thursday, but are restricted to 50% occupancy rules. Retailers are uncertain what that might mean for their stores, and the State Fire Marshal's office is providing details.
Ice cream and liquor stores are also gearing up for the crowds, which began flocking onto Alabama’s sugar-white sand beaches shortly before the 5 p.m. “Safer at Home” order went into effect. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued the order on Tuesday, allowing the beaches to reopen with several caveats such as keeping groupings of people at under 10 and for people to maintain a 6-foot separation.
The Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending people wear masks when out in public, but few guests storming the Gulf beaches wore one.
Garnet Holt said she is worried about a “second wave crashing down on us,” with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Division of Infectious Diseases, suggested that people need to remain mindful of the risks of being around large groups of people even at the beach.
“There is nothing unique about the beach or the water in terms of transmission – it is just a beautiful place where people like to gather,” she said. “This poses a risk of person-to-person transmission, especially if large groups gather.”
The businesses in Gulf Shores weren’t anticipating a large rush of visitors this weekend that would create a concern about coronavirus spreading.
Matt’s Ice Cream reopened a few hours before the beaches reopened, and it was slow going.
“We’re expecting the beaches to get packed,” said Judy Manzano, 17, a Foley High School senior and employee at the ice cream store. The store, which had been shuttered during the pandemic, will be staffed with three people throughout the weekend.
Manzano said she is working Saturday, so her day to visit the beach is Friday. She intends on going with three of her friends.
At Al’s Liquor, crews were stocking up on booze like Malibu and Bacardi rums, and margarita mixes in preparation of visitors arriving through the weekend.
“We’re just getting ready for the overflow,” said Jessie Barry, manager of the three Al’s Liquor stores in Gulf Shores. “Everyone is ready to get out of their houses and get out and explore since the beaches have been closed.”
Take-out, groceries and Bushwackers
The inside of restaurants remain closed in coastal Alabama, but some of the more popular dine-in eateries were reopening this weekend for curbside and take-out meals. At Mikee’s Seafood, workers were busy bringing to-go orders out to visitors who were arriving to the area for a weekend of sun and surf.
“We are anticipating quite a surge with the beaches reopening and everyone being down here,” said Daniel Pickle, the family-owned restaurant’s manager. He anticipated the hot seller being the famous Bushwacker cocktail, which will be sold to-go.
“They are popular no matter what time,” said Pickle.
Christina Kourt, whose family owns The Flying Harpoon restaurants in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, said they are planning to experiment with a late-night delivery service this weekend to accommodate what she anticipates is a “big increase in business.” The food service will operate until 11 p.m., or about two hours longer than when most of the city’s eateries typically close.
The Gulf Shores restaurant was open for take-out and delivery for the past two weeks in anticipation of the beach reopening and a surge in traffic to the area. The Orange Beach location opens Friday for delivery and take out.
“We have just been so incredibly fortunate with the support from our locals, support from ‘snow birds’ and people who come back here year after year,” said Kourt.
The lack of dine-in options is expected to lead to a surge in traffic arriving to coastal Alabama’s grocery stores. Vacation rental companies, in fact, have been informing visitors to bring their own groceries with them upon arriving.
Kenneth Jones, the regional district manager with Louisiana-based Rouses Market – with stores in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach – said they are expecting a 10-15% increase in shoppers from recent weeks.
“We’re prepared for that,” said Jones. “We have our stores stocked, we have our people ready to take care of customers. We have greeters sanitizing the (shopping) carts, and they will have all our departments marked with 6-foot social distancing measures. We’ve installed plexiglass (at checkout counters) to keep customers safe. We’re also doing detailed cleaning, wiping down the ATMs … everything will be clean and safe and ready for customers so they don’t have to worry about anything with their shopping experience.”
Rental agencies see surge
Cleanliness is being stressed to all the condominium and vacation rental companies. Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, in recent updates to its industry partners – lodging, restaurants, attractions, retail, golf courses, fishing and boat charters – stressed that the No. 1 concern for travelers right now is “cleanliness and safety.”
Said Kay Maghan, spokeswoman with Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, “We have advised all industry partners to communicate clearly and often what protocols they are implementing to ensure the cleanliness of their businesses and safety of both their employees and guests.”
The rental agencies, which have spent the past month handling an alarming number of cancellations, have seen a surge in reversed activity since Ivey issued her latest order on Tuesday, in which she laid out the parameters for the beaches to reopen.
“We spent about six weeks unwinding what it took a year to book,” said Daniel Pricket, owner and head of real estate sales and rentals with Prickett Properties. The Orange Beach-based company has about 150 properties. “Our staff has been working overtime to unbook all of these bookings, and more concerning, from a vacation rental standpoint, was the lack of bookings.”
Pricket said since around 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday, shortly after Ivey announced the beaches reopening, “our phones blew up.”
He added, “It was like a green light came on the phones and emails … all of it.”
Other rental agents are echoing similar thoughts.
“Once the governor made the announcement, we booked about eight times what we were averaging before,” said Bill Brett with Brett-Robinson Vacations. He said the biggest jump in reservations were for the coming weeks, with the majority arriving after May 15.
Randy Hall, president/owner of Liquid Life Vacations, said that slightly more than 10 days ago, his company had 31 books and an occupancy rate of a meager 8% for the first weekend of May. On Thursday, two days after Ivey’s announcement, the company now has 124 bookings and an occupancy of 37% for this coming weekend. Last year, during the first weekend of May, Liquid Life’s bookings were at 50%.
“I expect with three days of sunshine and 80-degree days that we will continue to book more people for this weekend,” said Hall.
The influx of visitors will arrive to clean condos, Hall said. “Each of these people will drive here in a car, they will drive directly to the condo complex, they will have a digital code and they will enter a condo that is private, like a home,” he said. “Our company has gone to great lengths to disinfect and sanitize. Our cleaning team have masks and gloves.”
Hunter Harrelson, who owns and operates Beachball Properties, a rental agency that manages approximately 109 properties in coastal Alabama, said he’s confident the occupancy rates will rise as more people book a beach vacation. He said his firm’s inventory is 30% reserved, with a majority of the visitors arriving on Friday and Saturday. At the same time period last year, his firm was at approximately 50% occupancy.
According to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, overall occupancy has seen a slight uptick to around 18% for the weekend. For Memorial Day weekend, the numbers are moving up to 27%, according to Maghan.
The booming tourism last slumped in 2010, following the BP oil spill that ravaged Alabama's Gulf Coast beaches. But unlike today, the restaurants and retail shops were opened in 2010. Merchants and local officials are unsure how or when the hospitality industry can make a comeback.
“That is still well below what we would normally see this time of year, but is very much in-line with what we are seeing in traveler sentiment research with people being very hesitant to travel yet,” she said. “Plus, many states are still under stay-at-home orders through mid-to-late May.”
Harrelson predicts the numbers rising but falling well short of the 72% occupancy figures over Memorial Day in 2019. A prohibition on vacation rentals in Florida could also lead more tourists to Alabama, he and other rental agents said.
Brenda Seymour of Huntsville, was just glad to have the opportunity to walk back on to the sand. She and her nieces have been quarantined in North Alabama during the pandemic. Once learning that the beaches were reopened, the made sure to arrive to the Gulf Shores Public Beach upon its reopening.
“It’s a novelty of being able to get back out and enjoy the beaches, walk around in the sunshine again and not be held in captivity,” she said.
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