WINCHESTER — The COVID-19 pandemic devastated tourism-related revenues last month in Winchester and Frederick County.

The impact was amplified in early May with the cancellation of the 93rd Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.

"It's been felt across the board," Justin Kerns, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said on Thursday.

Each year, visitors to the city and county spend approximately a quarter of a billion dollars at hotels, restaurants, museums, shops and attractions, Kerns said. That equates to an average of $700,000 in tourism-related spending per day.

In March, the early stages of the pandemic caused a 36% drop in tourism spending, Kerns said. In April, that loss plummeted to 70% below average — equal to about half a million dollars in uncollected revenues per day.

"The sales taxes and meals taxes took a bigger hit than the lodging revenues," Kerns said. "And there's peripheral things as well, like gas."

Each year's Apple Blossom Festival attracts thousands of visitors to Winchester over a three-day period, Friday through Sunday. While there are no firm numbers to indicate the festival's average financial impact on the region, Kerns said hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses lost millions in potential earnings with the loss of this year's festival May 1-3.

"The cultural hit, the togetherness hit was felt even more than the dollars," he said. "We didn't realize how much we loved Apple Blossom until it wasn't here. ... It was a gut punch to the community."

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam eased the state's stay-at-home restrictions on May 15, so the local hospitality industry is slowing rising from its two-month slumber. However, Kerns said he expects this month's total tourism-related revenues will still be down by as much as 60% compared to last year.

Getting tourism-related businesses back on track won't be as easy as turning on the "open" sign.

Lani Pendleton, general manager of the Hawkeye Hotels brand in Winchester, said on Thursday that some furloughed employees are reluctant to come back to work right now over coronavirus concerns and apprehension about losing unemployment benefits that, due to the federal CARES Act, are $600 per week higher than normal through at least July 31.

Restaurants, food trucks and catering firms are also facing staffing problems. Julie Shaffer of Shaffer's Barbecue in Middletown said on Thursday her business is doing well, but she's scrambling to find enough employees to handle the workload.

"Thankfully, there's some light at the end of the tunnel," Kerns said.

Last weekend, there was an uptick in leisure travelers who stayed at local hotels. Pendleton said that equated to about 50% occupancy at the two hotels under her management, La Quinta Inn and Suites at 1055 Millwood Pike and Candlewood Suites at 1135 Millwood Pike.

More area businesses will be reopening when Northam green lights the second phase of Virginia's pandemic-recovery plan, probably sometime in June. Kerns said that is expected to trigger a gradual recovery of the area's hospitality industry that should continue through the rest of the year.

The real tourism turnaround will come next year with the highly anticipated return of the Apple Blossom Festival.

"I think the 2021 celebration will be huge," Kerns said. "Once something is taken away, you really want it back."

Kerns said he lived in Boston in the early 2000s, and he remembers how people there took the annual Boston Marathon for granted or grumbled about how it brought so many visitors to the city. When the event was shattered by a pair of bombings on April 15, 2013, local residents realized how much they valued the race and heralded its return the following year.

As the Winchester area emerges from the time of the coronavirus, Kerns said the millions of dollars generated by local tourism will become more important than ever as businesses and governments start replenishing their depleted coffers.

"A lot is going to be reliant on that day trip and weekend spending," he said.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

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