State travel restrictions and the closure of the U.S./Canada border during the coronavirus pandemic has put severe stresses on northern New York’s tourism industry. New York’s 21st Congressional District spans the state’s northern region and straddles the border from Watertown to Lake Champlain. Representative Elise Stefanik recently held a virtual roundtable to discuss the pandemic’s impact and update the industry leaders on remedial actions in Washington.
Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik invited business owners, tourism advocacy organizations and elected leaders from across the district to discuss the needs of the tourism industry as the COVID-19 pandemic strangles travel. “The purpose is to allow us to listen as representatives, whether it’s at the federal or state level, to your top concerns and also for us to provide an update to you as to what issues we are working on related to tourism and the important seasonal economy across the North Country and the Adirondacks.”
Stefanik highlighted some of the key federal actions that could impact the regional tourism economy. “I co-chair the bipartisan northern border caucus. We are advocating for a comprehensive plan to provide certainty and a timeline to reopen the northern border. In addition, many businesses have raised the issue of the additional pandemic unemployment assistance. One of the top concerns that I’ve heard from the business community is that it has hindered their ability to hire back workers. And the last issue I wanted to highlight is I’m advocating that our chambers as well as our tourist offices are able to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program.”
A number of chamber leaders and business owners discussed their concerns and one common theme surfaced. Six Flags Great Escape President Rebecca Woods says clearer communication with government is the biggest challenge they face. “First and foremost, we really need to get clearer communication. Where do we fall in these phases, outdoor attractions? And we just have absolutely no idea right now where we stand. Like I said we, we just need an answer. And we just don’t have them right now, I think is our biggest challenge.”
Washington County Fair Manager Rebecca Breese says the cancellation of the fair this year will not only have an economic impact on the community, but result in losses for groups like churches, youth and firemen’s organizations that rely on fairs for income. Breese agrees that a lack of communication is the biggest problem. “We do have an open air property, a property that has a lot of space for social distancing and we have events that are small that we would like to pursue. But the lack of clarity from the government is really making it quite tricky for us. And I think that’s true for all agritourism. You know, we’re being told 33% capacity, but we’re not really being told on how we’re supposed to calculate that. So it causes a lot of pause when we’re looking at, you know, being able to host events that could maybe help us make the difference to make it to next year.”
Yvonne Nichols, co-owner of Boots and Birdies Mini Golf in Lake Placid, says other than her business solvency, the key issue she faces is lack of communication with officials. “There needs to be open communication with the owners of these businesses to say hey this is how we’re doing it and this is how we’re doing it safely. To have just a bunch of, you know, the elected officials just, you know, sitting together and making the rules without actually talking to the business owners I think that there’s a huge loss. And being seasonal it’s a timeframe that we can’t get back. Everyday loss is huge for everybody. So, you know, I’m hoping that there can be, you know, some sort of bailout for the very small business owners that are taking this hit.”
Other topics discussed by the travel and tourism operators included the need for additional Paycheck Protection Program funding and the need for staffing and incentives for people to return to work. Congress is expected to return to Washington on Monday to discuss more federal aid.