Spring break has long been a respite for young people looking to blow off steam. This year, maybe more so. Whether summer will be too remains an open question--and one business owners are antsy to close.
Even though 60 percent of U.S colleges canceled spring break this year out of pandemic precaution, travel spiked. Between March 11 and March 28, the Transportation Security Administration screened more than 24 million travelers at U.S. airports, marking a streak of 18 consecutive days of more than one million daily travelers--a level not seen since before the pandemic.
The uptick is expected to continue into the summer months. Travel company Expedia surveyed 11,000 consumers around the world this winter and found that April to September will be the most popular travel time this year and 46 percent of respondents plan to travel once the Covid-19 vaccine is widely available.
But a boost in summer travelers may not mean a return to business as usual for every beach hot spot, as the scene from popular spring break destinations shows. While some states continue to practice caution regarding business capacity restrictions--even as vaccinations have picked up--higher foot traffic in other less restrictive states comes with its own list of challenges.
Bars and restaurants in popular vacation spots in Florida, which jettisoned business capacity limits and facemask requirements on March 2, are reporting a deluge. "They're spending like there's no tomorrow," says Angelo Elia of younger travelers. Elia, an entrepreneur and chef in South Florida, owns multiple restaurants in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Aventura, and Delray Beach. At each location, Elia says the past few months have brought in more revenue than all of last year.
While thrilled at the prospect of earning money, Joey Giannuzzi says staffing has been a big challenge. The co-owner of Farmer's Table, an outdoor restaurant with locations in Boca Raton and North Palm Beach in Florida, has 20,000 square feet of alfresco dining space and hasn't had issues with capacity and social distancing, but finding people to work has never been harder. The business went from "zero to 100 in the past three to five weeks," he says. "It's unbelievable. I've never seen the staffing market this tight, and I don't know what to attribute it to, but it's crazy," he says.
Giannuzzi says he recently started hiring from larger cities like New York and San Francisco that have stricter restrictions, and he's offering to relocate new hires' families.
The restaurateur is also finding that requiring patrons to don facemasks amid relaxed statewide mandates--which happen to go against CDC protocols, which urge continued caution and facemask wearing--has landed him in the center of controversy.
There are two groups of people when it comes to masks. Some are happy and compliant about his restaurant's facemask requirements, and then some don't want to wear masks and typically are vocal at the hostess stand. He says he'll get emails from some patrons who think precautions aren't enough, and others who think they're too restricting.
His advice for operating amid the tension? "People recognize quality, high standards, and integrity. Do everything that you can to keep consistent with standards," he says. Lean on other small-business owners in your community for support to get through the next few months, and look to the future for encouragement. He does this when considering the wedding bookings and large reservations that are coming through for his space for this summer and fall. "It's coming back. It's so encouraging," he says.
Meanwhile in California, spring break has been far tamer. Unlike in Florida, California's restrictions have continued. Every county in California is assigned to a colored tier based on its positivity rate, adjusted case rate, and health equity metric, ranging from "purple"--most non-essential indoor businesses are closed--to "yellow"--most indoor businesses are open with rules around social distancing and facemasks. On March 14th, many counties moved to a "red" status that allowed businesses to reopen to 25 percent capacity. Amid continued business capacity restrictions, business owners are reporting more subdued results.
At this point in the year, Todd Brown, the owner of Bub's @ the Beach, a popular spring break bar and restaurant in San Diego's Pacific Beach neighborhood, would normally be placing daily inventory orders for the start of its busiest season. While Bub's has been a staple in the community since Brown founded it 21 years ago, he says business--with the exception of last year around this time--has never been this slow.
What's more, the constant gyrations on capacity restraints have been singularly difficult, says Brown. Each time California has ordered businesses to close, Bub's has had to liquidate its stock. "That's been financially devastating," he says. Earlier this year, Brown took out a paycheck protection loan for his business.
While not everyone is vaccinated, those who are want to get back to normal and do their thing, says Brown, who wishes there was more support in the state for businesses wanting to serve them. "If people are traveling, we have a real good chance of getting a good crowd here," he says. "Having the ability to get back inside with dining gives us an opportunity to accommodate those travelers, and that's a big deal for us."