Local hotels report occupancy uptick as Fairfax County opens COVID-19 relief program

Hospitality workers looking to return to their jobs and hotels trying to recover from the pandemic are seeing signs of progress in an industry wrecked by shutdown orders and an upheaval in business trips.

Fairfax County’s new PIVOT grant program is prioritizing grant money for hotels, while also assisting other hard-hit businesses with $25 million in federal COVID-19 relief money. The program received 581 fully completed applications — including 15 in the lodging category — on Wednesday (June 23), its first day accepting applications.

Applications will be accepted through July 9, and the order they are received has no bearing on priority. But if funds are limited, lodging businesses with at least 10 rooms will be addressed first before a lottery then determines which companies in need will get money.

Managers in the Reston-Herndon area say they’re around half capacity. One said many furloughed staff are inquiring about when they can return, and three wedding parties stayed there recently.

Michael Riddlemoser, manager of the Inns of Virginia’s Falls Church location, said his 32-room hotel is also around 50% full, down from 75 or 80% full before March 2020.

“We just need more people coming into town,” he said. “DC [needs] to get full for us to start getting the DC business.”

A “Fairfax County Economic Recovery Framework” report presented to the county board of supervisors in January found that the accommodation and food services industries shed more jobs than any other sector, projecting a loss of 12,420 jobs or 26% of its workforce through December 2020.

“The pandemic has had disproportionate impacts across industries, with hospitality, food service, and small retailers most heavily impacted and facing the longest trajectory for recovery,” the study said.

The leisure and hospitality sector has lost 3.1 million jobs during the pandemic, representing over a third of all unemployment in the U.S., according to an American Hotel & Lodging Association report from February.

The report said the industry lost over 17,000 jobs in Virginia last year and was projected to lose over 13,000 jobs this year.

UNITE HERE Local 25, which represents about 7,200 hospitality workers across the DC region, had only 2% of members working last July, but the employment rate has bounced back to 25% in Northern Virginia, according to Benjy Cannon, the union’s director of communications.

Cannon attributes recent gains over the last eight weeks to vaccinations and domestic travel.

But the union believes pre-pandemic occupancy levels won’t return until international travel and long-term business travel returns, Cannon said. With unemployment benefits set to expire in September, that could lead the group to press legislators for changes.

“By late 2023, 2024, the industry is slated to recover stronger than it was in 2019,” Cannon said. “So, while this is an unfortunate bump in the road and our members are certainly mourning over it, we do still think that this region, this market, can recover in a really robust fashion and expect it to, even if it’s still a few years away.”

Photo via Febrian Zakaria on Unsplash

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