There are no two ways about it; COVID sucks. For tourism businesses, including my own, being closed for more than a year sucks. The constant starts and stops, ups and downs, sucks. The never-ending barrage of bad, scary news, sucks. The disproportionate effect it has had on our sector of the economy, sucks. The toll it has taken on our friends and peers – emotional, financial, physical – sucks!
I am penning this on Wednesday April 14, right in the heart of the new “March Break”. Not much longer than a month ago, my business partners and I were optimistic that we would be open to receive limited guests all of this week, marking the beginning of a new chapter. Like many of you reading this, we have been shuttered for more than a year with the exception of a brief period in the summer. I understand, firsthand, the lengths businesses in our industry will go to ensure that guests remain as safe as possible and have shared your frustration that many of us have not been permitted to open. Even through this though, we consider ourselves one of the lucky ones. We have been able to successfully apply for most of the supports, grants and loans that have been made available by the province and the feds and, while we have incurred almost a million dollars in new debt and pushed my retirement horizon back 15 years, we are fairly confident that we will weather the storm, assuming we get vaccines in more people’s arms faster.
In the last round of research that came through Destination Ontario, two stats jumped out at me that summarize perfectly the dichotomy of people’s perceptions. A full 77% of the Ontarian’s polled feel comfortable visiting other communities in the province. However, only 38% of the exact same people want anyone coming into their towns for a visit. What this tells me is that everyone thinks they personally know how to stay safe and COVID-19 free but have no faith that anyone they don’t know can do the same. Until this past weekend, I was focused on the “not in my backyard” mentality the study revealed, worried about the ramifications it will have on the businesses of tourism long after the restrictions from COVID-19 have been lifted. But on Sunday, I found out that one of my closest friends tested positive.
This is not someone that you could ever classify as a “covid-iot”. During normal times, his mantra has always been, “nothing good ever comes from being outside.” He and his family have been doing everything right during the pandemic. Working from home. Only going out to the grocery store once a week. Keeping to their bubble. And yet, on one of the rare occasions that he ventured out in the last few weeks, he was exposed to someone else who probably thought that they were staying safe too. Until we went back into grey, they were part of our social bubble and we were comfortable with that because, like the majority of Ontarians, we felt that our family was doing all they could to stay safe and their family was too. If we had opted to break the rules because we knew in our hearts both families were safe, it could be that we all could have contracted the disease. In my opinion, it is not tourism businesses that are spreading COVID. The worse culprit is people’s over-confidence that they, their family and friends are all safe and then visiting them without distancing and masks. I have been guilty of it during the various stages of the pandemic over the past year too.
The craziest part of this whole roller coaster is that we are in the darkest, scariest moment of it with the finish line in view. The vaccines are here and being administered as quickly as they come in. There is hope for some return to normalcy by the summer. But there is a lot of uncertainty between now and then, which adds strain to the businesses most affected. I have been pushing for the day when the businesses of tourism can reopen their doors and welcome guests. But last night, the realities of the pandemic came crashing down with a gut-punch to the stomach when I learned that my friend, just 49, had been moved to the ICU and placed on a ventilator. In that instant, COVID went from just being a crushing financial burden to the tourism industry, to a scary, real disease that is hitting very close to home. Now I am thinking that I would gladly remain closed for another year, even if it meant bankruptcy, if it would guarantee his recovery.