Is now a good time for OBX tourists?

By on March 16, 2020

Issue inflames passions during COVID-19 crisis

The debate is over how much traffic we want on the bridge these days.

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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  • DiDee

    I know we are tourist income driven counties. However, resources are low to 0 in grocery stores and Walmart. Older people need items as well. I saw no compassion for the older local folks yesterday at Walmart. Dollar General did an amazing thing opened allowed older people come and shop without being trample.
    Tourist should not have been allowed to come in at all. All these NY, Ohio, NJ, PA, etc tourist did not think clear. Yes, lets go away from our family doctors and/or full benefits. Sometimes benefits are limited when you are out of state.
    No logic and no consideration for the local population.

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 9:28 am
  • Shelly Efird

    I really feel like those in control are more worried about businesses than citizens. I understand that citizens make up the majority of those businesses, but they make up only a very small percentage of the population. Therefore, by continuing to push for tourism during a global pandemic, these “leaders” are allowing greed to trump the overall safety and health of the local community. It feels like these businesses and leaders are taking the, “we are going to do what we want to until we are told not to” approach. That is just greedy and very lazy. It goes against everything the CDC and federal Government is warning us about. We want to be proactive, not reactive. The message I took away from this article is that the OBX leaders and businesses are choosing to be reactive. Close it down NOW BEFORE it spreads to alarming amounts. I don’t care about your well above poverty line profits, but I do care about my elderly neighbor who could not handle that ONE stray visitor that brings the covid 19 virus to my town. IT ONLY TAKES ONE PERSON to completely infect an area. Please shut it down now your greedy bass turds.

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 9:48 am
  • Nancy Krysiak

    I live in Corolla 90%of the people who live up here year round are retired. That puts most of us in the most endangered group if this virus strikes here . One case of the virus could kill a large majority of us. I think something should be done to keep seniors safe and if that means a travel ban then do it.

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 9:58 am
  • glarry

    Glad Oakes is not mayor now; we need the common sense of Ben Cahoon at a time like this. It’s just stupid to ask people from areas with infections to come here and circulate among people where no cases have yet been identified. Self-inflicted injury is what it is. We may not have the right to close the bridges, but we certainly shouldn’t be encouraging people to visit. But then capitalistic greed always overrules common sense in America.

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 10:10 am
  • S

    I feel sorry for the home cleaners that work for these employers. There is no way to disinfect every surface in the home that the last renters may have touched. You can spread the virus before you realize you are sick. I’m sure the cleaners themselves are not adequately protected. Do the rental companies not understand the transmission of viruses or are they just that greedy? There are people on chemo and who have other health issues who could die because of this ignorance/greed.

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 10:18 am
  • Grady Lassiter

    I was surprised that no one has mentioned that these tourist are generally not bringing their own food and supplies. Both Harris Teeter and Walmart are virtually empty. Little to no sandwich meat, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, milk, etc. The same is true for cough medicine, pain relievers and vitamins. I agree with the other comments it is irresponsible for rental companies to take advantage of this pandemic. Just because the govenor has not imposed a travel ban doesn’t mean dare county commissioners can’t envoke a travel ban to the outer banks. When we have a travel ban during the threat of a hurrican it is intended to protect the health and safety of the people. A travel ban envoked now would also protect the health and safety of everone. As it would protect the resources for the people who may have to shelter in dare county.

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 11:11 am
  • Susan

    Waiting for the state government to make a travel mandate is a mistake. Our local government is failing to take into account the unique environment and needs of its county and citizenry. Here, out of town visitors can outnumber residents and disproportionately impact the health of those of us who live here. Additionally we are only equipped with a small hospital to handle an outbreak if needed. Many of these vacationers are traveling from locations with confirmed cases of Covid 19, not only are they acting irresponsibly but so are the rental companies and the local government.
    As a lifelong resident of Dare County with family members in the vulnerable demographic age, I implore Dare County to halt tourism. Our local economy is important, but not at the sake of our health and our lives.

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 11:20 am
  • NCBeachu

    Write your county commissioners and tell them how you feel!

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 11:40 am
  • Daniel

    These visitors are acting selfishly as are the rental companies. Our local government is neglecting its citizens and putting our vulnerable populations at risk. Lets implore them to take into account the health of our citizens — especially our vulnerable residents 65 and older—by banning tourists for now.

    Bob Woodard’s email:
    [email protected]

    Tuesday, Mar 17 @ 11:45 am
  • MLCharles

    My wife and I are both in our early 70’s and have been visiting the Outer Banks twice a year for the last 25 years. We are scheduled to visit again next month but decided it might be best to wait this craziness out and go later in the year. When we contacted the rental company we were told the “the Virus is not considered a valid reason for a full or partial refund” and that our only option is to rent the home to someone else. I guess the “locals” will just have to “put up with” the inconvenience of another visitor. To the writers here that hate “tourists” you never seem to have an issue with taking our money.

    Wednesday, Mar 18 @ 12:34 pm
  • FU OBX

    As someone who has come down for a week in the spring many years, had a quiet vacation, spent a lot of money and never bothered any of the permanent residents I feel it’s ridiculous the way many of you are putting down the tourists. I hope they don’t let anyone in the rest of the year and the whole area goes under. I’ll find somewhere else to vacation and never be back.

    PS, when test kits are actually available and you find out there have been many permanent residents walking around with the virus don’t blame us “obnoxious, useless tourists”.

    Wednesday, Mar 18 @ 12:44 pm
  • David

    I as a tourist agree you need to protect your community. This is not the time to be promoting tourism. This is a very trying time for everyone in every community across the nation. However as a tourist who has spent time and money planning a vacation to your little sandbar paradise, I believe this is not the time for realtors and homeowners to be profiting from such an extremely dire situation. We who have paid a full amount for vacation rentals in advance, should be entitled to some sort of reimbursement. We who live in states like Ohio do not have the luxury of closing a bridge and shutting down a ferry to nonresidents. We can not stop you at the border. We can not turn you around tell you your not welcome. You may be infected. We’re not testing you to check we , are simply assuming you are. Just go home or elsewhere, oh and by the way, you can not get a refund because you did not pay for Hurricane insurance. Sounds like discrimination to me. I would not expect a full refund because I respect the time and planning of the realtors and homeowners. But at the very least half would be appropriate. This is not a hurricane or washed out road, nor is it a cut power cable that only affects your community this is a global pandemic and people should not be profiting from it.

    Wednesday, Mar 18 @ 5:36 pm
  • Mike Myers

    David this is in response to your crying about a refund. Ever heard of vacation insurance? It covers your vacation rental in the event of Named storms and national emergencies. Maybe you should’ve looked into that…

    FU OBX…this is in response to your comment about never coming back to the OBX. Good don’t come back with an attitude like yours. OBX year round locals are not calling for a ban forever. These times call for drastic measures. It we have to shut down for one Summer then so be it. We dont need 500,000 people here that could be infected and are not properly prepared in a rental home. For weeks on end…changing the population every week I might add. We need to limit exposure not worry about you piddly week. vacation. Alot of us locals even advocate a ban on out of state homeowners too along with tourists. We realize that’s a harsh measure but its happening all over. Its gonna get worse…way worse. Stay home and hunker down and you can vacation next year…maybe in Myrtle Beach SC. SINCE you’re not coming to the Outer Banks again crybaby…lol

    Thursday, Mar 19 @ 9:02 am
  • Tony Currin

    My wife and I are non-resident property owners in KDH.
    Desperate times demand that people and “Government” come up with creative solutions.
    If the blockade of the OBX continues thru the season it will be catastrophic to
    the financial well being of residents, workers, and property owners.
    Our proposed solution:
    1. Gather existing historical data that shows what the weekly financial impact
    to Dare County will be if the visitor blockade continues thru the season
    (April 1 thru October 31).

    2. At each blockade point have a screening process.
    Start by creating 2 lanes to enter Dare County( I believe there are
    3 blockade points (Wright Bridge, Alligator River Bridge,and US 264)
    Lane 1: Residents, Workers, Property owners ( Verified by Law Enforcement)
    Lane 2: Visitors: A team of paid medical professionals,( RNs, EMTs,PAs, etc)
    backed up by law enforcement will determine if there are any vehicle occupants
    showing symptoms of COVID-19. If there are no occupants showing symptoms
    then the vehicle may pass thru with appropriate tracking paperwork.
    If there is 1 or more occupants showing symptoms,
    the vehicle will be told to turn around and seek medical attention.
    An additional service may be possible, perform routine test for COVID-19
    for those with symptoms and have results sent thru the normal medical process.
    3. Before implementation, a responsible neutral party needs to determine the cost of the screening process against financial impact of the visitor blockade. I suspect the financial impact of visitor blockade will be exponentially greater that the cost of the screening process. Government can be creative to figure out a way to recover cost of screening process.

    I am sure there are improvements that can be made to our suggestion. But, we have to start somewhere.

    Saturday, Mar 21 @ 12:21 pm
  • Patti Shufflebarger

    This virus is not about fun but health…life and death. We all know what happens in summer….tourists don’t think about reality but just having fun no matter what. We are having difficulty getting necessary items….supplies are in demand nationwide. I haven’t bought meat except one item …the only meat item left in the case. I only go out for meds and a few groceries….with an underlying chronic illness I choose to
    limit my exposure to the possibility of contacting virus or flu. There is no way to control an influx of folks at this time. It is a time for caution…..I applaud your current concern for the citizens…we do not have medical facilities to handle the number of possible deadly virus, accidents, and drownings…just please think it through with deep concern for protecting our communities and the lives of all of us. The virus is an accepted threat to the entire country. Relaxing our guard with best medical guidelines now it negates what positive actions we’ve been adhering to…..just my point of view. Thank you.

    Monday, Mar 23 @ 3:16 am
  • Pamela

    July 2020 we will be there go away “Rona” We have no choice no refund on our house

    Sunday, Apr 5 @ 7:06 am