VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The beaches, hotel rooms, and restaurants at the Oceanfront are all a whole lot busier now than they were this time last year during the pandemic. But maybe they’re a little too busy. The return of business is happening at a much faster rate than the return of workers.
“The good news is that there’s a lot of business right now, there really is,” said BJ Baumann, owner of Rockafeller’s Restaurant and president of the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association. “The bad news is we can’t take all of that business because of the staffing issues.”
Many of Baumann’s staff have been with the restaurant for years, but she has lost about one out of every three workers since before the pandemic, so she’s not staffing as many tables as before.
“The labor crisis that is going on right now, it’s a fight all of the positions that we have available, and it’s a fight between everybody down here.”
In the meantime, tourists have returned.
“I got my niece here, my girlfriend, my mom and dad, my brother-in-law and my sister all here just having a good time,” said Tyler Meyhoefer, visiting from Connecticut, as he dug a pit in the sand just a few feet from the incoming waves.
But hotels are having the same troubles as restaurants, trying to rise above a shortage of staff.
“Sometimes you got to have a room that sits empty because you couldn’t get it cleaned that day. That’s not good for anybody,” said John Zirkle, head of the Virginia Beach Hotel Association and general manager of the Double Tree at the convention center.
Previous coverage from the beginning of the summer:
“I’ve been in the business 20-plus years, and this is something I’ve never experienced,” Zirkle said. This time of the year, he’d typically have 150 employees, but this year it’s just 60.
“We’ve had a good June and July, and August is shaping up to be well. Our fear is what’s going to happen when the kids go back to school and the summer ends.”
“With the pandemic (vacation travel) was absolutely not gonna happen, but this year we’re both vaccinated and that’s gone a long way to help,” said Taylor Thompson, visiting with his wife from Vermont. “It’s great we can do things like this again.”
A key source of workers — the J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel program — has all but dried up. Before the pandemic, as many as 1,500 visiting workers came here each summer. This year, Zirkle says, it’s about 300 at most.
“(Visiting workers) would accept a lot of hotel jobs during the day and then the restaurant industry would see them having a second job at night, so it was a double-whammy for all of our businesses to not have that,” Baumann said.
Even with the labor shortage and, once again, rising coronavirus numbers, Oceanfront tourism is much improved from last year.
“Virginia Beach is experiencing a really great summer. We’re excited that visitors have come back to our destination,” said Nancy Helman, interim director for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In July, hotel occupancy was 89%, actually better than 2019, the last year before the pandemic, according to the CVB. Zirkle says hotels have been sold out every weekend so far this summer.
According to Baumann, restaurant business went down from 25-56% from 2019 to 2020, and is still down from 10-36% compared with 2019.
Baumann says the financial landscape has improved but stops short of saying the business that restaurants and hotels enjoyed pre-pandemic is “back.” Baumann says programs on both the federal and state levels fell short of serving up any true help during the pandemic.
“The Restaurant Revitalization Program on a federal level ran short almost immediately. It barely touched the tip of the iceberg as far as getting more funds to people,” Baumann said.
She says the restaurant and hotel associations will ask the city for help from a pot of money from Washington. She says similar groups in Fairfax and Loudon Counties are already taking advantage of it.
“We want city leaders to recognize the benefits of tourism and what that means to our local tax base and how that benefits every single citizen in Virginia Beach.”