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Resort towns hopes for sunrise at the end of coronavirus

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Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk | Photo by Alvin Matthews

Despite coronavirus rocking the Delaware beach towns, Highway One Companies owner Alex Pires is staying hopeful about the summer.

He postponed the opening weekend for Rusty Rudder, Jimmy’s Grille and other venues in Dewey as soon as Delaware reported its first coronavirus case. Days later, Gov. John Carney issued several orders that cut off dine-in service and closed beaches at least until May 15.

Delaware’s beach season launches on Memorial Day Weekend — one week after the order is supposed to lift.

But instead of worrying whether people won’t come, Pires is holding on hope that it’ll trigger a boom in the tourism economy.

“Once we get past this, I predict this’ll be the biggest summer yet,” he told the Delaware Business Times. “We’re within driving distance for 80 million people in five states and we have a free beach. People will be cooped up for weeks. They may be sitting further away from each other on the beach, but they’ll come.”

Tourism is a $3.5 billion industry and brings in 44,030 jobs, according to a 2018 study. Forty-two percent of those jobs are in Sussex County. But right now, beach businesses are cutting back staff and hours because many are limited to take-out only.

“There’s no way curbside and take-out can provide the same revenue that a sit-down meal can when people come here to visit,” Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce CEO Carol Everhart said. “This is a huge hit for businesses.  and I’m getting calls from our members that are trying to stay open just so they won’t have to lay off staff.”

There’s real fear about surviving the coronavirus side-effects among the business community. Steve Montgomery, the owner of Starboard in Dewey Beach, said that businesses are lucky to cover 50% of their costs with it. After a long winter, many businesses might not have enough reserves to pay staff.

“The one thing that scares businesspeople more than anything is the unknown,” Montgomery said. “Not knowing when we will each be able to reopen is frightening, but let’s do whatever we can to get past this.”

Steve Montgomery | Photo c/o The Starboard

To reinforce the message that Delaware’s shutdown is not an excuse to come to the beach, Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns issued a civil emergency. That way if people come to visit or stay at their second homes, they’ll also be asked to shelter in place. Officials at Lewes, Dewey and Bethany Beach quickly followed suit.

“We have a population year-round of 1,500 and it’s mostly older. We’ve been blessed with no coronavirus cases, but we have a small hospital system,” he said. “Some businesses will get hit by this, and some will have to leave here. But by May 15 we should have a better picture.”

The Freeman Stage in Selbyville, another popular draw in the summertime, is also preparing for a strong summer once it moves forward with its season. The venue is estimated to draw $68 million in economic impact to Sussex County through its musical and performance acts.

Right now, Freeman Stage Executive Director Patti Grimes said it’s taking it day by day. Instead of announcing its line-up, she and her team are working to reschedule performers booked in May. If it comes down to it, she said the Freeman Stage will shorten or delay its season if need be.

“This will end, we just don’t know when. We don’t have a crystal ball,” she said. “For now, we’re going to work together so we can celebrate when this crisis ends. The music will continue to play on.”

As the co-owner of Arena’s Deli and Bar, Mayor Kuhns is well aware of the stakes if the coronavirus pandemic continues.  He shut down two locations, including one in downtown Rehoboth Beach, and had to lay off staff. He’s considering closing two other locations right now.

Kuhns said history shows people return after hurricanes, but this crisis was something more “disturbing” that what Rehoboth Beach has seen before.

“I assume people will get cabin fever and they will stay close, but that’s only if the situation passes or relaxes by May 15,” he said. “We’re taking it day by day, week by week.”

— Katie Tabeling

[email protected]

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