As summer approaches and tourism season begins in Central Oregon, local city leaders are worried that visitors could worsen the spread of COVID-19. “We have an advisory group basically saying, please don’t come to Bend right now,” Bend Mayor Sally Russell said Thursday. “Hopefully, as we re-emerge under new guidelines from the state, (we) can not have a big surge of tourists that inadvertently, and unintentionally, end up bringing COVID-19 into our town.”
Tourism was one of many pandemic-related topics discussed Thursday morning by Russell and Redmond Mayor George Endicott, along with their respective city managers, during a virtual press conference. The four city leaders said they intend to host weekly sessions like the one Thursday, unless there is nothing new to report.
Russell, Endicott and their city managers also discussed the pandemic’s impact on tax revenue, how local businesses could re-open in the future and other topics.
Tourism is a major source of revenue for Central Oregon. As recently as 2018, visitors spent $961 million in the area — the ninth annual increase in spending, according to the Oregon Tourism Commission.
About 9,920 locals were employed in the tourism industry that year, the commission’s report stated.
Although Russell and Eric King, Bend’s city manager, are concerned about tourists exacerbating the spread of COVID-19 locally, they’re going to try to use messaging to dissuade potential visitors from coming, rather than literally force them away.
“It’s going to be very difficult, legally, to prevent people from coming here,” King said during the press conference. “There would be constitutional issues in doing something like that.”Although the summer hasn’t begun, Redmond Airport — the entrance to Central Oregon for many tourists — is already seeing a decline in business. Keith Witcosky, Redmond’s city manager, said during the press conference that the amount of daily flights has plummeted from 30 to five. Typically, the airport sees 1,500 daily travelers, and now, it’s under 100, he said.
However, the Redmond Airport received about $9 million in March from the federal government’s CARES Act , according to Witcosky and the Federal Aviation Administration. This means Redmond’s city government won’t have to dip into its general fund to keep the airport running for at least a year, Witcosky said.
But the Bend and Redmond leaders said they expect a significant loss of tax revenue, mostly from gas and lodging taxes, due to social-distancing regulations this year that keep people from traveling. King said he expects a $2 million to $4 million loss for Bend during the quarantine period, and Witcosky said he anticipates Redmond will lose up to $1.7 million through June 2021.
Because of this, both cities plan to scale back spending and freeze hiring.
“We need to be careful and conservative right now, hold back on projects that our community maybe doesn’t need right away,” Russell said. “You hope for the best and plan for something less than optimal.”
Both mayors said they have been working closely with their cities’ chambers of commerce, and with local businesses, to see what they’d need and/or want to safely re-open. When these companies resume business, and what that looks like, are decisions for the state and counties, not the cities, all four city leaders stated.
Gov. Kate Brown recently sent out draft guidelines for re-opening restaurants and retail businesses. But local businesses told Redmond and Bend city leaders that they wanted more clear, specific guidelines, King said.
Local businesses said they wanted a few assurances before they would open their doors to customers, Endicott said. Those include having specific safety rules from the state, available child care for employees, time to reconfigure stores and train employees in new regulations, enforcement support from local governments and clear messaging of new behaviors for customers.
These local companies are itching to re-open, and want to know exactly what to do so they can serve people again, Endicott said.
“‘Give us the guidelines (and) we’ll follow them, we’ll make sure our customers follow them,’” Endicott said local businesses told him. “‘We’re tired of having no income.’”