By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on March 16, 2020
As the coronavirus crisis deepens, and as social distancing guidelines and rules tighten everywhere in the county, the question of whether the Outer Banks should be encouraging tourists to vacation here has become a subject of heated debate.
“I think we’re trying to be sensitive to the different fears people have out there…and there is a whole lot of angst,” Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles told the Voice. “Everyone wants the coronavirus to be behind us and everybody doesn’t want the economy to go into the tank.”
“We don’t have a roadmap for this,” Nettles added.
But anxiety heightened as the Outer Banks experienced a notable influx of tourists in recent days, a number of whom had made last-minute travel plans after coronavirus school closures in their areas. At the same time, concerns surfaced about businesses promoting the Outer Banks as a good vacation option during the coronavirus pandemic.
One example was a March 12 blog post by a rental company, that has since been taken down, on its website. It read, “With national threats of the coronavirus blanketing the news, you may think now is not the time for a vacation,” the post read. “But on the contrary, the Outer Banks is a great option for your spring vacation despite the coronavirus. Here are a few reasons why you can still enjoy spring at this beautiful beach destination.”
Another touted the benefits of private rental homes versus cruise ships, hotel rooms and resorts. “Driving to your vacation destination minimizes exposure to others [compared to airline or bus travel] and allows you to be in complete control of your environment,” it read.
When asked about encouraging tourists to come down to the Outer Banks now, Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard told the Voice that the county was following the state’s lead.
“The state has not put a ban on travel,” he said. “I don’t think it’s prudent for us at this time not to follow the state’s guidance.”
During a March 16 commissioners meeting, Woodard added that the Dare County Control Group wants to make it clear “that the message should be sent to use common sense and good judgment.”
For her part, Dare County Health and Human Services Director Sheila Davies said in an email response to the Voice that, “Should future orders from the Governor, or mitigation guidance from public health officials include travel restrictions, Dare County officials will take action to implement them.”
At this point, with 33 known cases of coronavirus in North Carolina and one hospitalization, the state has not imposed travel restrictions, nor has it ordered the closing of businesses, such as restaurants and bars, that can be popular among tourists. At a press briefing on March 16, North Carolina State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson said that such establishments are being asked to use social distancing techniques.
For Peter Graves Roberts, general manager at Backcountry Safari Tours in Corolla, the idea of tourists flocking to the Outer Banks in order to escape the coronavirus situation in their communities is unnerving, to say the least.
“Wouldn’t it be a safer bet for everyone involved if some of you who live in areas currently under partial lockdown, if you put it off at least for a few more weeks,” he wrote in a recent article on the online publishing platform, Medium Digest.
He later told the Voice in an interviews that, “In my basic opinion, the rental companies are using this as an opportunity to bring more business here. And they’re seizing upon it, whether or not that is putting all of us who live here at higher risk for developing this thing.”
Carolina Designs owner Monica Thibodeau, however, said that while her rental agency has continued normal marketing efforts, it has suspended special marketing email blasts in light of the coronavirus crisis. “We are just fielding calls with some individual concerns,” she said. “As the situation continues to evolve, our goal is to be as factual as possible.”
Thibodeau told the Voice that Carolina Designs has experienced some cancellations due to concerns over traveling, with some guests wanting to postpone vacations until the fall. But she said they’ve also seen more bookings, including last-minute reservations.
“Really, people are not encouraged to travel right now but, you know, their plans are in place. Homeowners certainly have their second home here,” she said. “We are getting plenty of inquiries right now, people deciding and asking questions.”
Responding to a question about sanitizing rental homes on turnover days, Thibodeau said the disinfectant that Carolina Designs uses is certified to kill the novel coronavirus and the agency now leaves extra sanitizer in the homes for guests. And while Thibodeau says there is not one in place yet, she expects that a protocol will soon be developed among the local rental community in the event there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in one of the rental homes.
One local official who did weigh in on the local debate over promoting tourism on the Outer Banks at this time was Nags Head Mayor Ben Cahoon, who raised his concern with a March 14 Facebook post. Cahoon, who told the Voice he was speaking as a resident and not the mayor, commended local governments, residents and businesses who were following Governor Cooper’s guidelines for mitigating the spread of the virus.
“But a few businesses are attempting to capitalize on out-of-state school cancellations and remote-work options and are inviting vacationers. This is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the guidelines and common sense. I would urge them to reconsider,” he wrote.
Cahoon later told the Voice that in light of the situation currently unfolding in Italy — where voluntary restrictions were not initially followed, leading to an explosion of cases — promoting the Outer Banks in a way that capitalizes on the situation was wrong.
“The sooner we get a grip on this, the better,” Cahoon asserted. “And to add more people to the mix, that’s just concerning to me. I just don’t think that is the right thing for us to do.”
Citing the limited capacity of the Outer Banks Hospital and the island’s infrastructure, he added, “I wasn’t suggesting restrictions, I was just suggesting people exercise better judgment…[The governor] hasn’t issued a travel restriction, but the idea of all the restrictions is to limit the spread.”
Village Realty owner Bob Oakes responded to Cahoon’s post, defending his company’s blog post touting the benefits of a drive-to vacation destination.
“It seems like a commonsense alternative,” he wrote, noting that most visitors would spend time in their homes and on the beach with the family and friends they came with. “The Outer Banks has welcomed visitors thru many ups and downs,” he said. “We should continue, and not stoke fear of one another unnecessarily.”
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