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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 17, 2020
“There’s practically nobody here that’s not local.”
That’s how Todd Wight described the view in Rocky Harbour Wednesday morning.
It's a strange site for a community in the heart of Gros Morne National Park that’s normally bustling with tourists this time of year.
Wight has owned the Ocean View Hotel in the town since 2007. There have been years where he’s had to work hard at it and he's had to be strategic in building his business, but he's enjoyed 12 successful years. That was until COVID-19 happened.
“Something like this comes along and just flattens everything. Kind of leaves you dead in the water,” he said.
Wight met with his staff on Thursday to let them know he would not be opening the hotel this year. It normally closes for the winter.
“It’s going to be a different type of season,” said Wight, who's just one operator in the area that’s had to make the difficult decision not to open.
Norris Point-based BonTours has also shut down for the year. It’s a big operation in the area that offers boat tours and hiking adventures on Western Brook Pond, boat tours of Bonne Bay, and runs a passenger ferry linking Norris Point on the north side of Bonne Bay with Woody Point on the south side.
The company also has the Cat Stop Pub and Grub located right on the Norris Point waterfront, which will remain closed. Then there’s Anchors Aweigh, a group of local performers, including BonTours owner Reg Williams, who have been helping the company entertain guests for years.
The group, which also performs to packed houses at the Anchor Pub in the Ocean View, has cancelled all its performances for this year.
Wight said his company has been trying everything it could, and they would work it if they could.
“But given the environment we’re in and the potential that remains, there’s just not a window that we can see where we can do any justice to opening up. We can’t provide full-time hours for anybody in any of our divisions. There’s just not enough volume to bring anyone in at an expected level of work.”
Out of a staff of 53, it’s only Wight and one other person working right now. He said the impact of not opening will be felt by not only his employees but will also spin off to his suppliers and service providers.
“Unfortunately, it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s a situation that’s unfixable.”
And a disappointment considering the hotel has typically been booked to about 95 per cent capacity for the season, with about 97 per cent of that business being motor coach and trade (travel agency) business.
“Once the travel restrictions came in by June 1, we knew that there was none of that coming. The travel restrictions put on by government certainly zeroed out all our business. We went to nil.”
Wight was hopeful the hotel would pick up some markets with staycations and the opening of the Atlantic bubble, and did get a handful of reservations, but with the size of the building, the cost to get it up and running and the overhead, it just wasn’t enough.
“We have to run 10 to 15 per cent capacity just to make a go of it,” he said.
The restaurant end of the business is even tougher. He said the hotel restaurant would have to run at about 50 per cent capacity just to make a dollar.
“The wage subsidy was there, but without business it’s impossible to pay people,” said Wight, who has taken advantage of some of the federal COVID-19 programs to help ease the losses.
“I’m not sure that the decision-makers in Ottawa are 100 per cent aware our situation is very critical. And it’s not just here in Gros Morne, it’s across the island.”
Wight is part of group of operators, accommodators and attractions and experience providers who have been helping build the trade sector and who are trying to generate awareness as to how desperate the situation is.
“This is not like we’re in a market where the resident population will sustain anything.”
He said it’s not just those who have closed who will feel the impact, as fewer attractions leads to fewer visitors.
“There’s a lot of operators here that can really benefit from the level of activity that is happening. They need people to come through their doors, to purchase their products and to use their services.”
So, he’ll help sell the area even though the hotel is not open, and plans to stay active on social media and its website.
BonTours announced the closure of its operations via its Facebook pages earlier this week.
General manager Dana Fudge said they were monitoring the numbers since the start of COVID and things weren’t looking good.
“The number of cancellations that was coming in compared to the number of reservations that was coming in, there was no way that we could operate.
“We had to make the decision, and based on the numbers it wouldn’t be viable for the boat tour to open and operate. We would have been operating at a loss.”
The company gets a lot of its business on Western Brook Pond from all over Canada, the United States and internationally. Travel restrictions mean that traffic won’t get here.
If they had decided to operate, Fudge said they’d have to contend with social distancing on the boat, which means limiting the numbers of people on the boats, and deal with increased costs for disinfecting.
It’s a tough loss for the company which, at peak season, runs five tours a day on the pond, using two boats that can hold 99 people each. In the off season, even the one tour a day is fully booked.
That’s just Western Brook.
Fudge said the company’s Bonne Bay tour is more geared to the tour buses that come through.
“And the bus tours are gone.”
And even with the Anchors Aweigh show, she said social distancing would mean limiting the number of people in the venue.
“It’s sad, it really is. It’s a real shock.”
The company has availed of the government programs that have offered COVID-19 assistance and Fudge said they hope to get through the winter.
But she’s also concerned for BonTours’ nearly 40 employees. Chances of them finding other work now are slim.
“A lot of the restaurants are not open yet and the theatre in Cow Head, Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, they’re not opening this summer either.”
Trails within Gros Morne — Western Brook Pond, the Coastal Trail and Gros Morne Mountain trail — are open, so she hopes that will help attract people to the area.
But without some other attractions and festivals, like the Harbour Lights in Rocky Harbour, people may not stay in the area for long periods.
“I do see a big different in Rocky Harbour and Norris Point area. This year it’s like a ghost town. In the evenings you’re used to seeing piles and piles of people around the Ocean View Hotel, just doing a walk and seeing the sunset. You don’t see that anymore. It’s not a normal season.”
Fudge and Wight are holding out hope that things will return to normal, or some form of new normal, in 2021.
Fudge said they already have bookings for 2021.
“Which is promising. We’re hoping 2021 is going to bring us some luck. And hoping it’s going to be a good, good year, please God.”
Wight also has bookings for next year and said there’s a lot of months between now and next June and July.
“We’ll forge forward and hope for a brighter season in 2021.”