Amid the carnage of the coronavirus in South Florida, hoteliers might consider themselves fortunate to have accidental tourists such as Tim Zacharias and Susan Chapel.
The Michigan couple, bumped from a cruise out of Barbados, made their way to Fort Lauderdale this week and landed at the beachfront Ritz-Carlton, where the rooms, like everywhere else along the city’s famous shoreline, are largely empty.
They visited a nearly deserted Las Olas Boulevard, shopped at a boutique called Celebrity of Las Olas and sampled takeout drinks and snacks from the nearby La Bonne Crepe. Zacharias offered owner Eric Melot a generous tip. The French-American bistro, which Melot has owned for four years, was closing Sunday night. Earlier in the week, he laid off 19 people.
“Believe me, I know what it’s like to try to make payroll,” said Zacharias, who runs two auto dealerships back home. “Think about that — how fragile we are.”
Like a bolt of lightning, government-imposed restrictions have decimated the region’s tourism industry, leading to sweeping room cancellations and hotel closures statewide. Key South Florida visitors have been cut off as cruise lines suspended service for 30 to 60 days, and airlines drastically slashed their domestic and international flights.
Late Friday, another blow was delivered to hoteliers in Miami-Dade County: most hotels, motels, hostels, temporary vacation and short-term rentals and other forms of lodging must shut their doors by 11:59 p.m. Monday. On Saturday, Mayor Carlos Gimenez told CNN he acted because “there is really nothing to do here.” Previously,he had ordered bars, beaches, restaurants and nightclubs closed.
“We really don’t want any additional tourists coming down,” he said. “Just stay home.”
But the order allows hotels “to house essential personnel and people who are unable to get back into their homes.” They can also house first responders, displaced visitors or residents, domestic violence victims, airline crew members, relatives of hospital patients and out-of-town journalists, The county’s action came in concert with a similar order by Miami Beach, which Mayor Dan Gelber said was done reluctantly.
“Our hotels have always been the lifeblood of our economy, so shuttering them is not something to do impulsively,”he said in a statement. “But right now, as painful as it may be, the reality is we just cannot be a tourist destination. Attracting visitors and tourists is just utterly incompatible with social distancing.”
There was no immediate indication that Broward and Palm Beach counties, or any of their cities, would follow suit.
But ever since the coronavirusbecame Public Health Enemy No. 1, the drastic decline in tourist traffic has forced hoteliers to make gut-wrenching decisions: Suspend operations and lay off employees, or find other ways to generate cash so they can stay open and keep people employed.
Some of the biggest resort hotels in Broward and Palm Beach counties have already decided to temporarily shut their doors. The 1,000-room Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood was suspending business starting Saturday, according to its website. The Breakers in Palm Beach suspended operations Wednesday with the intention of reopening April 8. Full-time employees will be paid during the closure and receive full benefits, a resort spokeswoman said.
But statewide tourism, which according to Visit Florida generates $86 billion yearly and employs 1.5 million people, is scrambling for its life as local and state governments almost daily change restrictions on who can stay open, who must close and to what degree businesses can keep functioning.
In a study released late Friday, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, an industry trade group, projected that 44% of hotel employees in each of the 50 states will have lost or will lose their jobs in the coming weeks. In Florida, the study projects that the “coronavirus-induced job loss” will be 88,631 out of the 201,433 direct hotel jobs now in place. “Total hotel supported jobs,” which now number 747,705, will be cut by 305,146, the study predicts.
Heiko Dobrikow, general manager of the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas, told a teleconference of Broward business leaders on Monday that most hotels “are running at 60 percent lower than their normal business levels.”
Among other critical points made by Dobrikow:
Leisure business has come to a halt as airlines stopped service from various countries and domestic travel has been significantly reduced.
Most future social catering has been canceled or postponed.
Almost all group business has vanished for the next three months.
Hotels have shut down floors due to lack of occupancy.
In a telephone interview, Dobrikow said he suggested that hotels offer vacant floors and rooms to hospitals if the virus becomes so overwhelming that there is a shortage of beds. Thus far, no one has taken him up on the suggestion. But the idea for remote hospital beds gained the ear of the White House last week when Carnival Corp. Chairman Micky Arison suggested to President Trump that idled cruise ships could be deployed to communities that need help. The company emphasized the ships would be made available for non-coronavirus patients.
Meanwhile, Dobrikow said the Riverside and other hotels with restaurants are getting into the takeout business. To comply with government directives mandating the closure of restaurants and bars, the Riverside shut its Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille, the Golden Lion and Preston’s Wine and Martini Lounge.
“We decided to go ahead with the takeout concept,” he said. “Our goal is to stay open during this entire period.”
That means that among the hotel’s 270 employees, “everybody’s job description has become fluid.” So servers have become delivery people, while others have been assigned sales tasks. Still others who don’t feel comfortable working have been allowed to take vacations or personal time off.
“We have not laid off anybody,” he said.
Neither has the Crane’s Beach House Boutique Hotel & Luxury Villas in Delray Beach, where general manager Cathy Balestriere said the independent 28-room hotel is offering “no contact” service to visitors who suddenly find themselves stuck without a hotel room.
“We don’t have words to describe what we’re going through,” she said Friday, adding that she and her staff started mapping contingencies to cope with the virus nearly two weeks ago. “We felt this was going to be inevitable. We started thinking what we could do to keep the safety of our guests and staff as a priority.”
Under the plan, guests check in and check out remotely without coming into contact with any of the hotel’s 24 staffers. Rates have been cut, too, as on-site food and beverage services have been discontinued.
Some staffers work at home. Others perform the usual room servicing and resupply tasks while guests are outside of the room.
Reprieve for some alcohol sales
In Miami-Dade, attorney Louis J. Terminello, who chairs the hospitality law practice at Greenspoon Marder, had to shut a bar and lounge he owns in Doral that employed 80 people.
“We don’t have a restaurant component,” he said. “We don’t have a viable restaurant. We’re shut tight without any alternatives.”
“It’s a sick feeling — you don’t know how long it’s going on for.”
But there was an upside Friday for his law firm clients. Earlier this week, his firm wrote the DeSantis administration and asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to modify his executive order restricting alcohol sales. On Tuesday, the governor had ordered bars, pubs and nightclubs to stop selling alcohol and ordered every restaurant to limit patrons and staff to 50% of its current building occupancy.
DeSantis went further Friday, ordering that non-essential businesses like restaurants close entirely except for takeout and pickup orders. But the governor allowed restaurants to sell alcohol in closed containers with takeout.