As social distancing continues, state and local tourism employees and those who operate short-term lodging options are feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as reservations decrease while event cancellations and postponements increase.
Mississippi universities and higher-education institutions have moved classes online and have encouraged students to return home to keep students and faculty healthy by emphasizing the importance of social distancing.
These closures and relocations have affected business owners who offer short-term lodging options, and Mississippi college towns are among those taking the biggest hit. Oxford and Starkville depend on college students and their families to act as consumers.
Mike Tagert, president and CEO of The Partnership, a community organization that forges corporate and economic partnerships at Mississippi State University, said social distancing is affecting tourism.
“With the closure of MSU, many small businesses have been negatively impacted, not only by having less customers, but having a reduced employee pool,” Tagert said. “Many of the college students work at local restaurants, hotels, and other small businesses.
“Many events, including, of course, all university sporting events, have been canceled for the remainder of the school year,” says Tagert. “Also, the Cotton District Arts Festival has been postponed for now. These events contribute significantly to our local economy.”
The Double Decker Arts Festival in Oxford has also been rescheduled for Aug. 14-15. These two festivals, among spring athletic events and many other activities, benefit the community by welcoming more visitors and more consumers.
“With the cancellation of cultural and athletic events, the hospitality industry, and specifically, the hotel and rental business is taking a tremendous hit,” Tagert said. “No events, fewer hotel rooms, and less temporary rentals.”
All short-term rental owners are following recommendations from Airbnb, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and government officials, to ensure a healthy, clean, safe living environment.
Deborah Pittman, owner of a short-term rental in Oxford, said she is taking necessary precautions before approving guests.
“My house is still available,” she said, “but I will get a lot of background on the people, before I allow it [a reservation].”
While area hotels have been affected by the pandemic, local Airbnb owners are experiencing cancellations. College town renters say many of their patrons are parents who attend fraternity/sorority weekend events, baseball games, and graduation.
Some Airbnb renters are temporarily lowering their rates, but remain hopeful business will resume when the effects of the pandemic end. They say it helps when events are rescheduled instead of cancelled.
The Graduate hotel in Oxford announced all of its hotels will be closed effective Mar. 20, according to the hotel’s website.
Oxford and Starkville community members are ready for the pandemic to be over and tourism to be back in full-force. However, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) announced Wednesday, Apr. 1, a statewide, shelter-in-place order to prevent contact from the virus, and to not overwhelm health workers.
Mayor Robyn Tannehill has set limitations and restrictions for Oxford citizens. Through video announcements, Tannehill has addressed her growing concerns.
“COVID-19 is in our community, and it is spreading, and you must take it seriously,” Tannehill said via video Friday, Mar. 27. “Unfortunately, there still seems to be those in our community who are not heeding the request to stay at home unless you absolutely must be out for essential service.”
She encouraged all Ole Miss students still in Oxford to act as responsible citizens or go home. The following week, the Oxford Police Department began issuing citations for those in large gatherings. They could pay a $1,000 fine or serve 90 days in jail.