Poconos hospitality industry insiders talk upcoming fall tourist season, labor shortage – Pocono Record

As the summer starts to wane and people in the Poconos turn their attention to fall, the area’s restaurant and hospitality industry continues to face the challenges of COVID-19.
Ever since the start of the pandemic shutdowns, local eateries and vacation hotspots have experienced a plethora of problems, including complete closures, phased reopenings, restrictions, capacity limits and more. While decreasing case rates in Monroe County offered a sign of hope for the return of regularity to these businesses that make up the cornerstone of the local economy, recent increases in COVID-19 statistics have elicited cause for concern yet again.
From employee shortages to supply problems, the forthcoming fall looks to be yet another hurdle for the industry, once that could very well determine the future for the local economy, big businesses, and the many people who rely on them for a livelihood.
Pandemic in the Poconos:Big businesses in the Poconos talk vax mandates
Trip Ruvane, co-founder and president of Barley Creek Brewing Company and the northeast regional president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, has continuously rolled with the punches that the pandemic brought to the Poconos.
Utilizing his spacious grounds in Tannersville, Ruvane was able to adapt and provide customers with an opportunity to enjoy some time at his establishment without worrying too much about COVID-19, whether that was in heated tents during the winter, or in the Pint Size Park and Biergarten once the weather warmed up.  
Once the summer set in and mask mandates disappeared, locations like Barley Creek saw a surge in customers eager to get back to some sort of normality. But with that wave came a host of issues that many establishments continue to confront, and will likely be affected by into the fall.
“The good news: When case rates dropped — the enthusiasm of vaccinated people was remarkable — a lot of pent-up demand to get out and do something fun, and customer visits were up,” Ruvane said.
The “bad news”, according to Ruvane: the Pocono region is currently dealing with a labor shortage, and the restaurant and lodging industries were hit hard. 
“Our full-service business model had to change — higher pay, bonus programs, work/life/balance initiatives, cutting back hours of operation, revamping and streamlining menus were all part of the management round table discussions.” He said.
According to Ruvane, this could very well lead to additional changes in the market that have been creeping up as COVID-19 cases rise, and may even result in some serious shifts.
“I suspect Barley Creek will look at adjusting our hours based on customer demand and staffing shortages,” Ruvane said. “I do think more businesses will close — sell to the next generation — especially the ones that don’t have an outdoor venue or outdoor seating options. The ones that will get through this have worked hard on curbside pick-up and to-go options.”
Still hiring:The Poconos’ hospitality industry facing labor shortage
One of the most important to overcome remains employee shortages. As numerous restaurant and resort workers were driven from their respective industries thanks to closures and cutbacks, many migrated to other fields or were put in a position where returning to work was difficult, if not impossible, especially for parents.
“For Barley Creek, and this industry to keep up and running smoothly in the fall and into the winter, we are going to need more staff. We’ll most likely need to keep making adjustments to our hours of operations and we’re going to need to say a lot more ‘Thank Yous!’ to our team members,” Ruvane said.
Representative Rosemary Brown (R-189) noted that attaining workers and necessary supplies have hit the restaurant industry particularly hard, and that this could very well continue into the season/
“Our restaurants are still struggling, not only with patrons at times due to COVID, but also finding employees and receiving food deliveries and supplies,” Brown said. “You have seen many establishments closing for more days than normal, reducing their hours of operation or removing a breakfast or lunch course, all with the goal of staying in business. 
Ruvane also noted that a key element to fixing the labor shortage is to pay attention to unaffordable housing, which makes is difficult for those in restaurant and hospitality work to live near where they work.
“This is the worst I have ever seen,” Ruvane said. “This needs to be addressed urgently. When we talk about infrastructure spending it should include affordable housing.”
While restaurants have taken the brunt of the pandemic, local resorts were able to make their way through the spring and summer with some outdoor ingenuity — something that they can readily employ in the fall, if they have the space.
Shawn Hauver, president and managing director of Camelback Resort, said that business throughout the summer was surprisingly good, as pleasant weather and a plethora of outdoor activities brought many customers to the Poconos, especially to larger resorts like Camelback.
Even once the resort’s outdoor waterpark closes, Camelback offers plenty of options for visitors to enjoy — including the mountain coaster, utility task vehicle tours, ziplining and more — which can be enjoyed among a small group of people, lessening the chances of COVID-19 spread.
“We’re going to be opening a new activity in the fall, which is fall tubing,” Hauver said. “So instead of tubing on snow, we’ve bought a new tubing course that we’ll have set up and introduce that. We’re constantly looking at new ways to activate the outdoors. You know, some of the resorts up here are able to do some things like that, and others not so much. But we do see it like that certainly is an advantage to us.”
Industry insiders are hoping that good weather, a major draw for tourism once the leaves start to change, will help to draw people to the Poconos this autumn, resulting in resort bookings and spending at local restaurants and other businesses.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we will experience a strong fall season if the weather is moderate as it was during 2020. Also, if the fall foliage is brilliant, it will enhance the guest experience,” Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau president and CEO Chris Barrett said.
According to Barrett, even though cases are increasing and some of the public have become apprehensive about traveling, being an outdoor-attraction economy, the Poconos are an appealing option for those do not want to travel too far to enjoy the environment.
“We have noted some hesitancy concerning travel considering the variant emergence. However, the availability of outdoor recreation experiences in the Poconos provides a strong choice for the potential guest as we noted during 2020 and the beginning of 2021,” Barrett said. 
Summer outlook:Business is looking up, Poconos industry insiders say
Representative Maureen Madden (D-115) noted that vaccinations and masking are two key elements to prevent further case spikes in the Poconos, and without the help of businesses and customers, escalating COVID-19 counts could result in the very same phased reopenings and capacity limits seen last year.
“People getting vaccinated and people adhering to masking will allow us to continue business as usual, and not have to go to 75% or 50% in our restaurants,” Madden said. “Because I can tell you, there is no scenario in which I want that to happen, unless we start seeing triple numbers of people getting COVID every day or even double, if we consistently see 75 to 80 people or even 50 people a day getting COVID in Monroe County, and the high hospitalization rates again, I don’t know how we don’t start looking at how many people are congregating on inside settings.
Madden added that the reinstitution of capacity limits in eateries is uncertain at this point, especially after Governor Tom Wolf’s emergency disaster declaration powers were limited earlier this year.
While COVID-19’s Delta variant continues to spread and cause an uncertain future for the area, the old standbys remain the best approach to overcoming the pandemic and keeping the local economy afloat.
“Vaccination, appropriate social distancing, mask and handwashing still remain the cornerstones of mitigating the spread,” Dr. Susheer Gandotra, an infectious diseases specialist at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Pocono, said.
Masking is a common practice in restaurants and hospitality, and most of the Poconos’ businesses in those industries have enforced facial coverings for employees and, at the very least, encouraged vaccinations. Physicians are hoping that with the final authorization of COVID-19 vaccines, vaccination rates will increase and provide even more protection people for industry workers and customers alike.
“Vaccination is the best prevention strategy,” Gandotra added. “We are seeing that it is doing an excellent job in protecting from COVID-related serious illness or hospitalizations. With FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, hopefully more people would get the shot soon.
Being able to keep community spread under control will be fundamental to the survival of those industries, as even government support like the Paycheck Protection Program can only do so much to support these businesses.
“In the early stages of the pandemic the PPP program was extremely helpful and made the difference with some operations surviving a difficult 2020,” Barrett said. “(But) most owners and senior managers would rather operate their businesses and create jobs and opportunity for their communities. Government assistance programs tend to be short term fixes, with the PPP program being a prime example. The hope is that we can conquer the variant though the vaccine and get back to some type of normal by year end.”        

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