An end to the pandemic hangover? Local businesses brace for what’s next, try to put ‘smiles back on faces’
Local businesses and hotels are seeing an uptick in travel, business ahead of the state’s reopening on Tuesday, but some lingering pandemic aftereffects remain that will still need sorting out.
Finally, we arrive at June 15 — a day where life should begin, we hope, to return to normal.
Following a year where the only certainty business owners had was constant uncertainty, Tuesday will provide a potential respite to the residual anxieties of 2020 and the pandemic’s early 2021 wrath.
But between staffing shortages, Cal/OSHA mask mandates and lingering fire concerns amid a historic drought, there are still a few hurdles to clear before businesses can breathe easy at the finish line.
“We didn’t get much of a crop last year,” Sante Arcangeli Family Wines owner John Benedetti said. “I can’t do that two years in a row. If we get fires [again] we’re screwed.”
Benedetti was among several local vintners who suffered a smoke-ruined yield of grapes last year due to the CZU Lighting Complex fires. This year, however, still remains a potential growth year for the business — as long as they can stay open.
“We need to get a crop and need the world to stay open. If that happens it can be a growth year. If not, it’s over,” he said. Benedetti added that this year has confronted small business owners like himself with an “all-in mentality” toward staying afloat.
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If another fire were to strike, impacting this year’s crop, it would directly affect the winery’s wholesale business. If another shutdown were to happen, the retail side of the business, including a new tasting room in Pescadero, would be impacted.
Despite some of the uncertainties that remain, Benedetti remains optimistic about the future of his family’s business. The issue he’s concerned about most right now is the state’s new mask ordinance, which requires any unvaccinated employee to continue wearing a mask and institute an honor system for patrons. The proposal leaves his employees in a compromising position, he said.
“It’s really on us to be the police,” Benedetti said, expressing displeasure. “But if that’s what it takes to bring business back, I have to.”
The mask proposal is one of several hurdles including the ongoing staffing shortage that local businesses will continue to navigate as the state prepares to reopen.
“When there is a significant work stoppage like there was with the pandemic where you need a year-long lifeline it’s tough. Santa Cruz can be an expensive place to live,” California Hotel and Lodging Association (CHLA) spokesperson Pete Hillan said.
The CHLA represents over 6,000 hotels across the state. By the association’s estimates, member hotels have lost approximately 90,000 employees over the last year, he said.
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Locally, the workforce has also suffered. As of February 2021, 10,600 workers have left the labor force, according to Santa Cruz County’s State of the Workforce report. The tourism and hospitality industry, which makes up 14% of the county’s workforce, saw the largest decrease in employment at 80%.
Yet, despite the lack of available workers, business continues.
At the Dream Inn, weekend and leisure travel continues to increase and has returned to near 2019 levels, according to director of sales Dan Smart.
Smart said the hotel has benefitted from its proximity to the Boardwalk, the beach and its open-air rooms, which have been popularized further via the hotel’s vertical concert series. Despite the return in business, the hotel is still hiring.
Hillan noted that coastal towns such as Santa Cruz have seen an uptick in travel and early figures have shown that more visitors are looking for outside destinations, specifically the beach. Leisure travel makes up just one-third of the equation for the hotel industry, with business and convention travel making up the other two-thirds.
“We really won’t have all three of those working at pre-pandemic levels until 2024,” he said.
At the moment, it seems that weekend travel remains a bright spot and a catalyst ahead of June 15.
“People are excited to get out of the house,” Roadhouse Restaurant and & Inn manager Jenny Smith said. “June 15 will be a breath of fresh air.”
Smith manages the roadside watering hotel in Davenport and said both the nine-room hotel and restaurant have been booked most weekends. It’s a sign of the positive trends the area is seeing as residents and regional travelers flock to the coastlines or Redwoods in the northern portion of the county.
For Benedetti, the positives of 2021 remain simple. He’s still able to do what he loves and with each bottle of wine and each glass poured in person there’s an opportunity to bring a little more happiness back into the world.
“What we’re doing is putting smiles on people’s faces,” he said. “I like putting smiles on faces and haven’t been able to see any smiles for a year and a half.”