Local tourism and hospitality strained by pandemic

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 12/16/20

HONESDALE, PA — Justin Genzlinger has a “full understanding of the safety issues” causing the multitude of restrictions that have been placed on his restaurants and lodging …

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Local tourism and hospitality strained by pandemic

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HONESDALE, PA — Justin Genzlinger has a “full understanding of the safety issues” causing the multitude of restrictions that have been placed on his restaurants and lodging establishments throughout NEPA: He just wants the right balance of aid to even out the losses he’s incurred.

Financially speaking, the pandemic has been particularly hard on the hospitality industry. The PA Department of Health has routinely placed specific restrictions on bars and restaurants in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. This has been true since the spring, but things still aren’t looking up.

In response to skyrocketing rates of positive test results, the PA Department of Health has put the commonwealth “on pause.” Among the long list of new and updated mitigation measures, all in-person, indoor dining is prohibited through Monday, January 4. 

This isn’t the first time it’s happened, but now it’s winter and restaurants won’t be able to counteract their losses through outdoor dining as they could during the spring and summer. And as business owners march through a barren remainder of the year, they do so without the promise of federal relief through the state.

PA’s budget through June 2021, recently passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, allocates the remainder of the commonwealth’s federal CARES Act funding toward balancing the state’s books. Instead of dispersing its remaining $1.3 billion of relief to businesses and people affected by the pandemic, PA has chosen to spend the money on its correctional institutions, police, youth centers and the health department.

Genzlinger who owns Settler’s Hospitality Group—encompassing restaurants, hotels, rentals and catering throughout the area—said that since the hospitality industry has faced specific restrictions, it should have also been made eligible for specific relief.

“The messaging online and in the press is that restaurants and bars are the most dangerous place to be; well if that’s the truth and we’re going to be curtailed… then why aren’t the resources lining up with that message?” Genzlinger said.

Holly Przasnyski, interim executive director of the Chamber of the Northern Poconos, said that it was disappointing to find out that the rest of the state’s CARES Act money would not be going toward its designated purpose.

“It’s a little disheartening that any of the CARES Act funding isn’t going toward the overall use of the CARES Act, especially after the announcement that so many of the businesses in the hospitality industry are going to be hit once again,” she said. “We do understand that the general budget is a big thing for our overall state. However, so many places are being impacted so greatly that is a little disappointing to see it not going to these businesses that need help.”

Genzlinger said, in addition to not getting grant funding, he’s also struggled to understand the state’s decision not to consider restaurant workers frontliners.

“To explain to our hourly team members why folks who work in grocery stores or other businesses serving the public food, or who deal with the public in office settings are frontline workers, and people serving food in a restaurant are not frontline workers… I found that challenging to digest,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense to be withheld from the grant relief as well as the employment relief on payroll.”

Genzlinger has been able to secure some relief for his businesses. For example, Wayne County received around $4 million in CARES Act funding to disperse throughout the community; Settlers Hospitality received $25,500 and Settlers Inn received $255,000. He praised the county commissioners in Wayne and Pike for fighting for local businesses.

“The local politicians have done more for our area than state or federal in the way of actual dollars in hand,” he said. “Without the support of the Wayne and Pike county commissioners, we would be facing an entirely different business reality: restructuring, or raising money, or selling the business, or furloughing people again.”

But without more direct federal and state aid, Genzlinger and Przasnyski both described a “domino effect” as imminent.

“Tourism is pretty much one of our biggest avenues for our area; every single business in our area is affected by the travel industry,” Przasnyski said. “With the different restrictions placed on it, it will become a domino effect.”

Genzlinger predicts to begin seeing the brunt of business closures over the next 90 to 120 days.

To avoid as many closings as possible, Przasnyski said that the federal government needs to pass a new stimulus bill as quickly as possible. Genzlinger has a list of priorities he’d like to see the federal and state governments address. At the federal level, he mentioned reworking the Paycheck Protection Program to give hospitality businesses “a second bite of the apple” and limitations on COVID-19-related lawsuits and workers compensation claims that he feels hurts small businesses. At the state level, Genzlinger reiterated his wish for restrictions to be offset by relief.

“There’s no right answer to what you’re allowed or not allowed to do to enforce the safety of things,” he said. “But if you’re going to curtail someone’s livelihood, then lining up the resources to match it, I think, is a reasonable request.

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