The summer and fall of 2020 were supposed to be the best yet for Todd and Kristie Roling, who purchased their Stone Hill Inn four years ago and moved up from Dallas to raise their three teenagers in Stowe.
But that was before Covid-19 restrictions cut short their reservations for the summer and cooled interest in foliage season. Now, although the nine-room inn is open to guests from Vermont and approved counties outside the state, the pair don’t expect to make money this year.
“We’ll be lucky if we don’t have to give all of our fall reservations back,” said Todd Roling. “Everybody is saying there is going to be a second wave.”
Vermont’s lodging sector has been hit particularly hard by the business shutdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the governor closed all non-essential businesses in March through an array of executive orders, many businesses were able to qualify for Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government to tide them over for a few months. Others who didn’t qualify for the loan forgiveness portion of that new program have been assisted by new rules, implemented June 5, designed to help businesses in the service industry.
Lodging owners say the problem now is that the state’s guidelines are confusing – to them and to guests – and so restrictive that they can’t function at a profit.
Brian and Leslie Mulcahy, who have been running the 19-room Rabbit Hill Inn in Waterford for 27 years, spent June 6 and 7 on the phone telling guests with early summer reservations that they couldn’t come up because they weren’t from counties that have been approved for visits by state officials.
Rabbit Hill is reopening June 18. Guests from outside the approved counties can start visiting Vermont June 15, but they must quarantine for 14 days either at home or in the Vermont lodging property. Alternatively, they can quarantine for seven days and receive a negative Covid-19 test result.
“The reality is some of these things we’re allowed to do are not really practical,” said Brian Mulcahy.
To answer questions from business owners like Brian Mulcahy, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which is serving as the clearinghouse for the rules that state officials are creating for each business sector, on June 9 held a town hall meeting to answer questions. Nearly 200 people signed up to listen in.
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Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the agency, has been leading efforts to create safety guidelines for businesses. He acknowledged at the start of the meeting that the lodging restrictions make it difficult to do business. Among other things, lodging operators must restrict themselves to 50% occupancy or to 25 staff and guests on the property, whichever is greater.
“We know this is really difficult,” said Brady. “We know going to 50% doesn’t make things work for you folks. This is about a path, about moving us toward a sense of normalcy.”
There is much variety in Vermont’s lodging sector, and accordingly there’s an array of different rules. Long-term residents of lodging properties aren’t included in the occupancy limit; neither are those who use cabins, cottages, and short-term rentals.
“If you’re Airbnb operators, we don’t expect you to allow only 50% of the bedrooms to be filled,” Brady said. And “there are not enough stand-alone private cabins to create a density problem at any of our Vermont resorts,” he said.
Lodging properties must screen guests and staff with a health questionnaire; follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control when cleaning rooms; prevent gatherings with more than 25 people, and police the use of the elevator to prevent too many from using it at once. Food service at lodging must follow the state’s guidance for restaurants, which limits indoor dining to 25%, and use online reservations only for diners.
Guests must sign up for Vermont’s SARA alert system, which reminds people to check for Covid-19 symptoms and assists the Department of Health in tracking cases.
“This is not a contact tracing system,” Heather Pelham, the state tourism commissioner, noted to town hall listeners. Lodging establishments are required to keep guests’ contact information in case that tracing is required in the event of an outbreak.
All lodging employees must wear masks at work. The overall goal is to reduce contact whenever possible, said Brady.
“That might even mean reducing your housekeeping services on a daily basis,” he said. “Maybe you don’t need to have someone going into a room each day if you have a long-term guest.”
As of June 8, lodging properties can take guests from Vermont and from “safe” counties in New York and New England. After June 15, the doors will open to people from outside those counties, as long as they follow quarantine rules and travel to Vermont in their own vehicle. Here the rules get more complicated: people who travel to Vermont by any other means of travel must quarantine upon arrival in Vermont.
“When someone quarantines on your property, it means they have no contact with anybody else. They really shouldn’t be leaving their hotel room or lodging room,” Brady said. “We know how unrealistic that is, but it is how quarantine is supposed to work. In your own home (when in quarantine), you’re not even supposed to have contact with members of your own household.”
As for the safe counties, officials expect to update the map every week, Pelham said. On June 12, officials announced seven new counties had been added to the “safe” list; now, Maine only has two counties not on that list. Asked at the town meeting how lodging owners could verify that guests had followed quarantine rules, Pelham said visitors would be asked to sign a certificate.
“There is a level of education there and a level of trust that folks are not going to be misrepresenting themselves,” she said.
The state is still working on its guidance for campgrounds. And it has other questions to answer. For example, some lodging guests might travel to Vermont from states where Covid-19 tests aren’t readily available, particularly to those without symptoms. Brady said those people must complete a 14-day quarantine before they enter Vermont. Those who enter the state, quarantine for seven days, and need a test can get one done in Vermont.
“Kind of like when you tell them the day’s events, you can tell them, ‘here are the local testing places,’” said Brady.
For all settings, not just for lodging, the number of people allowed to congregate at any one time is 25. That number will probably increase to 50 this summer, said Pelham.
Guests are asked to travel nonstop, avoiding stops even for food and gas.
“Every time they stop, it increases exposure,” said Brady. “Our guidance says to drive directly to the property. We won’t hold them accountable if they stop for gas or food, but the goal is to reduce stops or ideally have no stops. But we’re not going to be able to police that.”
If somebody is willing to come to Vermont from outside a safe county, stay in lodging and totally avoid other people, they still have to complete a quarantine.
“Right now, the only way you can come to Vermont is under the criteria we have laid out: one, you come from a non-quarantine (or ‘safe’) county; two, you quarantine at home and drive directly to Vermont, or three, you quarantine in Vermont,” said Brady. Another caveat: those rules apply to leisure travel. People who are traveling for essential work, such as transporting needed goods, don’t have to quarantine.
Brian Mulcahy said some guests book their spot two years in advance at Rabbit Hill Inn. Half of the inn’s business happens in the summer and fall, and most of those visitors travel from places like Florida, Texas and California, he said. He’d like to see the map expanded, and fast, placing the onus on innkeepers and guests to determine whether they’re at risk of carrying Covid-19 to Vermont.
“There are ways of opening things up and putting a degree of personal responsibility on all of this,” said Mulcahy, who is on the board of the Vermont Inn and Bed & Breakfast Association but emphasized that he was speaking only for himself.
“All the data seems to indicate at this point that we know who the vulnerable classes of people are. They are over 70 years old, they have two co-morbidities. You quarantine the people who need to be quarantined,” he said.
“In order for us to keep our business viable, we need to be able to host guests over a greater swathe of area than we are allowed to do at this particular moment. Guests are coming from the three counties in New Hampshire that are closed off, in and around the Boston area.”
Roling said his primary concern is finding cash to survive until business opens up again. To qualify for the loan forgiveness portion of the PPP, businesses now have to rehire all of their employees by Dec. 31. Stone Hill only has one employee, and they have used their $5,000 PPP loan to keep him on throughout the crisis. But as a small business, said Todd Roling, they’re not able to take advantage of programs they need to keep going through the rest of the year. Taxes and loans – even with payments deferred — utilities, and other costs threaten to put the pair in the red.
“Everybody is getting these zero percent loans. Why can’t the small businesses get them? These large companies are getting billions of dollars for zero percent on the dollar,” Todd Roling said.
“We sunk everything we had into buying this inn. We didn’t come up here to get rich; we came up here because we wanted to run an inn and just enjoy Vermont. We enjoy meeting people. It’s been wonderful until the pandemic hit.”
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