Doyle Parrish, CEO of Raleigh-based Summit Hospitality Group, wrote this letter to Gov. Roy Cooper today. Summit operates 18 hotels in North Carolina that employed 700 people before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Parrish is a member of the UNC Board of Governors and past chairman of the N.C. Travel and Tourism Coalition.
Dear Governor Cooper:
I am writing to convey a frightening reality: North Carolina businesses cannot continue to operate with the current COVID-19 regulatory uncertainty. This is especially true for the hospitality industry, including the restaurants and hotels that have been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic.
Thankfully, your administration’s early decisiveness helped North Carolina avoid every model’s initial projection of the spread of COVID-19. Now that we have flattened the curve, we must take immediate action to change the trajectory of our state and protect the financial and personal health of our citizens, especially the lower-income workers who have been harmed the most. We should immediately move to safely reopen all businesses. At the very least, employers must have a date certain to get back in business.
The latest data and science no longer supports keeping businesses closed, and to the contrary, the facts support reopening. This was not always the case, and we supported closing the state in the beginning when we only knew that cases were multiplying rapidly. But now it is clear that North Carolina does not have a uniform problem. Instead, we have a terrible epidemic in congregate living facilities, and a dangerous disease affecting the elderly. According to the state health department, the tiny percentage of North Carolinians in care facilities seem to account for over 60% of our COVID-19 deaths. Meanwhile, the elderly outside of nursing homes are also at risk, with 86% of all deaths among those 65 and older. This means that everyone else accounts for less than 14% of all deaths. To put this in context, among the 9 million North Carolinians under 65, about 80 have died. During the same 10 weeks, more than three times that many died in auto accidents per state transportation department statistics. This is tragic, but it does not compare to the tragedy unfolding for the unemployed in our state.
Summit Hospitality Group and our family of companies have provided assistance to our workforce during this unprecedented time. We have helped them navigate the complex unemployment system, provided them with access to the technology needed for filing, and offered regular consultations and assistance. We do weekly check-ins to make sure they are receiving the financial help for which they are eligible, to talk through their health and wellness, and to ensure they have food on the table through a grocery assistance program. Our employees are our family and the most important assets of our companies. Now that we are entering the ninth week of shutdown, employers are left with an uncertain reopening calendar causing employees to wonder if they will still have jobs.
Certainty in business is critical – employers cannot rehire unless they know how long they will be forced to operate at reduced capacity. Unfortunately, due to the prolonged and uncertain reopening timeline, our industry’s employers are not only asking when they may have the chance to reopen, but whether they will be able to reopen at all. No business was built to operate at 50% capacity or less, but all businesses that can operate safely should be given the choice to do so.
Last week, the United States jobless rate spiked to 14.7%, the highest we have seen since the great depression. Since mid-March, North Carolina has seen over 1 million unemployment claims filed which represents more than 20% of the state’s workforce. When looking at industry-specific data, employment in leisure and hospitality plummeted by 7.7 million, or 47%, from March to April nationwide. In North Carolina, hotel/motel occupancy decreased 38% from March 2019 to March 2020. Room demand fell 36% during the same time, and room revenues decreased 44%. This partial snapshot only captures half the month of March 2020, when the lockdown began. Each day that we remain in this uncertain business environment painfully prolongs our state’s economic revival.
A largely unexamined impact from this devastation is in our industry’s supply chain. Companies that service the restaurant and hospitality industry, including growers and meat packing facilities, were faced with a sudden, steep decline in demand. As establishments closed their doors these ancillary companies have been forced to cut workers, feeding into the reported 20.5 million national job decline. Late last month Sysco, a favorite company of North Carolina announced massive cuts to account for their reduction in business. US Foods also said it was temporarily furloughing workers to match changes in demand. The swift economic damage has only begun to trickle down to many of the industry’s smaller vendors, but will take years to rebuild – further reason why a defined, strategic and safe reopening plan is paramount for our state.
Simply put, we cannot accept being left behind. Last week, USA Today showed the nation in graphics and description how 45 states were ahead of North Carolina in easing lockdown restrictions. Our hospitality, service and restaurant industry cannot afford to wait for a nationally isolated statewide timeline to expire, especially as our border states and other similar states around the nation have concluded that a safely staged reopening can occur much sooner.
North Carolina is among the top 10 most visited states in the country, and half of these visitors stay in a hotel, motel, or resort. One out of every 11 jobs here is tourism related, and pre-covid, nearly a quarter million people were employed in the tourism industry. In South Carolina, industry peers have reported going from 0 to over 65% occupancy as soon as restrictions were lifted. In Florida, a statewide business collaboration is already working to encourage Floridians to take in-state vacations. Those dollars are reigniting major industries in their respective states by enticing both in-state and out of state patrons – and they are doing it safely and sooner than our state. In contrast, North Carolina is in the conundrum of deeming it safe, for example, for Raleigh consumers to visit department and retail stores, but it is unsafe for a four-chair barber shop in Selma to operate even by appointment only with increased sanitization standards.
The NC Chamber released a clear and in-depth plan to aid our state officials and the business community’s efforts to safely reopen. Though I am not a member of the organization, I provided feedback on the package and I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically support it. We now have the roadmap, data, and information to allow businesses to safely provide goods and services to customers. However, North Carolina’s current lack of a strategic reopening approach like those used in Tennessee, Florida and even New York is costing our state the opportunity to reignite our economy and put people back to work.
The types of innovative strategies being used in other states and those proposed to revive our economy did not make it to fruition without constant healthy conversations with business leaders and employers. These conversations to date have somehow largely eluded your administration. Business communities in these other states have the assurance of reopening options and the assurance of opening dates, neither of which we have in North Carolina. As summertime approaches, people will run towards opportunity, and will not be bound by state lines. We cannot accept being left behind.
Let’s get back to work.