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Tough To Gauge Economic Blow Of Covid-19, But New Hanover County Won't Recommend Tax Increase

If the stay-at-home orders last into summer, businesses like Britt’s Donuts on the Carolina Beach boardwalk in New Hanover County will have to stay shuttered.  In Brunswick County, Southport has cancelled its summer market and concert series, and the official North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, which draws tens of thousands of tourists.  

WHQR explores what the summer tourist season means to the Cape Fear region.

The menu at Britt’s is simple: donuts—glazed only—served with coffee, milk, or soda. And it’s cash only at the register. Bobby Nivens and his wife Maxine have owned and run the business since 1974. 

"Well, I hope that we'll be open, sometime at least by the middle of May. I'm not sure. But we just, you know, we just have to wait and see what happens – if we reach that peak they’re talking about."

Nivens says he respects the restrictions – but he has cabin fever and he’s out of his own personal donut stash. (He eats one a day.  And he’s 81 years old.) But most importantly, he says his seasonal employees, who come back each year, are basically family. If the lines return to Britt’s Donuts, and there are almost always lines, he will work to keep customers safe.

"We’re going to try to get them to stay six foot apart. If that line starts forming out there, we’ll try to get them to say six foot apart."

Sean Cook owns Pleasure Island Rentals – a beach equipment company in Carolina Beach.  He also owns Shuckin' Shack, a local seafood restaurant.  And like Bobby Nivens, he worries about his employees.

"We've had employees with us for over 10 years. And so having to tell them that, you know, they don't have a job, they don't have a, a job to come to, it's been pretty heartbreaking. You know, we've dealt with that to some degree with hurricanes, but there's a light at the end of that tunnel."

Kim Hufham is President and CEO of New Hanover County’s Tourism and Development Authority.  She says shutting down the area right on the cusp of what was set to be a strong spring and summer season is devastating.  And tourism is critical to the local economy.  For perspective, she offers the latest economic impact figures available -- from 2018.  That’s the same year as Hurricane Florence. 

"Over $612 million was brought into our community from outside as far as visiting tourists… you know, that's over half a billion dollars that was contributed as a result of tourism."

County officials say sales tax distributions, fueled by tourism, represent about 22% of annual revenue, and they won’t know until late May how much of a blow COVID-19 will be. But they do expect to fall far short of the projected $7 million monthly influx. 

Tourism employs almost 6,500 people in New Hanover County alone. And the majority of those employees work for small businesses.

"The small restaurants, though they're full during the tourist season, aren't really that full during the off season."

That’s Craig Bloszinsky, Mayor of Kure Beach, a small town of about 22-hundred year-round residents.  It shares Pleasure Island with Carolina Beach and Fort Fisher.  The Town has about seven motels, he says, but most of the businesses are restaurants and markets.

"I am mostly concerned about them. They employ local people. They employ our teenagers. They provide things for us to do and stay local."

Some restaurants – as is true across the country – are trying to maximize their takeout and delivery business.  Sean Cook says his seafood restaurant is doing a good takeout business, but he’s not sure staying open is worth it. 

"Let's just say you had six restaurants on the Island. They had delivered, you know, two months ago before all this started, which typically would be your pizza places. I mean, now you've got like 20 restaurants trying to do it and that's great. And I hope everybody can put a few dollars in the bank account… but in the grand scheme of things, absolutely not.  It's, it's no, it's not profitable."

Bobby Nivens of Britt’s Donuts says even if he could do a walk-up window business, he will not open until it’s safe to allow customers inside and bring all his employees back. 

"If you can’t get out, if they don’t want you to get out, I don’t want my employees taking a chance on something like that, either."

Officials in New Hanover County’s Budget Office say they’re being conservative as they develop the budget for the next fiscal year.  They say they’re confident that they won’t have to cut services.  And county staff won’t recommend a tax increase to make up the shortfall, given the hardship local citizens are facing.   

For Bobby Nivens, a few weeks of delay opening the donut shop might mean he stays open later -- past Labor Day -- to compensate.  But if they can’t open this summer at all, they’ll be back in time for the 2021 season, he says.  For sure. 

"Yeah, definitely. Yep. That's all. Yeah, we'll be back."

When the pandemic has finally passed, what does Sean Cook think Pleasure Island will look like?

"It’s going to be one hell of a party for a couple weeks, and I think everybody, for the most part, is going to survive."

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.