As vaccination rates increase, COVID-19 drop down and restrictions ease up, experts are “cautiously optimistic” about the onset of the summer season in the Poconos.
While Memorial Day weekend wasn’t necessarily the perfect time for backyard barbecues and fireworks due to two days of rain and cold, it appears that the northeast region of the commonwealth is on the road to recovery. Insiders from the world of business, hospitality and restaurants in the area have reported promising starts for the summer in the Poconos, and are looking forward to a busy season.
Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau President and CEO Chris Barrett noted that since capacity limits eased up on Memorial Day, his professional contacts have noted that business have reported an “extremely strong start to the summer.” While last Saturday and Sunday were a bit rainy, the weather on May 31 kept a lot of visitors in the Poconos for outdoor activities, Barrett said.
“Usually, a lot of those folks don’t carry over to Monday or change their plans, but this season they absolutely did so because there is so much pent up demand,” Barrett said. “So, we continue to see an incredible amount of demand, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing all the way through the fall.”
According to Barrett, meetings with park services last week indicated an “incredibly strong” demand. Larger Poconos attractions like Bushkill Falls in Pike County drew plenty of traffic from New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland on Memorial Day, suggesting that day trips to easily drivable destinations could greatly increase.
“Cruising really isn’t coming back, flying internationally isn’t coming back, at least probably for the balance of 2021 in the shape and form that it was during 2019, so that demand is on top of the strong domestic demand,” Barrett said.
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After the landmark lifting of capacity limits at businesses including restaurants, retail shops, salons and gyms on Memorial Day, foot traffic has been promising, even during a drab Saturday and Sunday preceding the holiday.
While a hot and sunny weekend is preferable for outdoorsy activities like barbecuing and backyard parties, what the Poconos saw last weekend pushed plenty of people indoors, according to Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association northeast region President Trip Ruvane.
“This particular Memorial Day weekend was a cold and rainy, and so Barley Creek had a great weekend,” Ruvane, co-founder and owner of Barley Creek Brewing Company in Tannersville, said. “Yeah, I mean, you know, you don’t want it to be ugly, but it worked out for us.”
As for businesses during fairer weather, Ruvane said that most establishments in the Poconos that have pivoted toward outdoor options — such as Barley Creek’s Pint Size Park, numerous sidewalk seating options on Crystal Street in East Stroudsburg and so on — have been seeing some good signs for business. Some eateries are even capitalizing on extracurricular outdoor experiences, if they have the room.
“So the goal is, ‘Hey, I know that some people aren’t comfortable venturing out into a restaurant, but are you comfortable venturing out into an outdoor beer garden?’” Ruvane said, noting that his business has invested in outdoor attractions like ping pong tables, foosball tables and cornhole games along with their wiffle ball stadium to cater to more outdoor-oriented customers.
Barrett pointed out that the local tourism and hospitality industries maintained some fairly good business even prior to Memorial Day, citing the Pocono Promise — a PMVB initiative that called for increased attention to care and cleanliness — as an attractive assurance for guests in the area, and that strategy could very well continue into the summer and beyond.
“We wanted to ensure that our team members and our guests were as safe as they could be while our guests had a great experience,” Barrett said. “So there has to be some type of halo effect from that from a branding standpoint, that our guests intrinsically understand that we take that very, very seriously.”
Pocono Mountains Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Charles “Chuck” Leonard said that his team has been exceptionally busy with work, particularly in warehouse distribution facilities, tourism expansion and other new projects.
“We’ve been going through a lot of township and borough meeting, etc., and let me just say the activity is tremendous in regard to new projects, and, of course, in regard to existing employers,” Leonard said.
Lemonade out of lemons
Small businesses, especially restaurants, appearing to be making some decent strides toward recovery as 2021 continues into the summer, Leonard said, despite a dismal period for the industries during the pandemic.
“We’ve seen significant improvements there, (and) I think that there’s going to be significant improvement for a lot of small businesses,” Leonard said. “We just hope that everybody can survive, you know, that’s always a real challenge, when you have a quarter that was as huge a disaster as the second quarter of 2020.
While some businesses had to close up shop due shutdowns and restrictions throughout the pandemic, many pivoted to get by over several tenuous months.
Following the lifting of COVID-19 mandates and the end of the mask mandate by June 28, or once vaccination rates reach 70% across the commonwealth, Leonard feels that businesses in the Poconos will recover, possibly exceeding projections.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not great for everybody, but hopefully, as we get out of this restrictive environment, things will come streaming back,” Leonard said. “And that’s what we perceive, when I say that we are busier than we ever had been with new inquiries.”
Unfortunately, for just about every sector of business in the Poconos, there are a few issues that remain, primarily with staffing and supplies.
Barrett noted that hundreds of new workers are needed across the area’s resorts. Ruvane said that his establishment has about 20 open positions at the moment, while other restaurants are desperately trying to bring back previous staff.
According to Ruvane, Striking a balance between meeting customer demands and not overworking current staff members is a tricky goal. He noted many workers have left the restaurant industry due to the unpredictability experienced during the pandemic, settling for more “reliable” positions at Amazon or other large companies.
“Now, I’d rather take a hit on how many guests we can handle as long as we handle the guests that we get properly,” Ruvane said, adding that Barley Creek has cut down their Morning Toast breakfast to four days a week, from Thursday through Sunday.
Leonard noted that certain industries are still experiencing the impacts of a slowed-down supply market that set in during the pandemic, which continues to affect development in the Poconos.
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The building industry has been significantly impacted by a pandemic, with the crisis, the price of lumber and other raw materials has increased significantly and that seems to be continuing, and that may slow us up a bit,” Leonard said.
While the future remains to be seen, people including Barrett, Ruvane and Leonard are optimistic about the Poconos’ business and economy over the course of the summer, especially after surviving the pandemic thus far.
“Hopefully, we can turn some of the lemons we acquired last year into lemonade this year,” Leonard said.