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What local tourism looks like heading into summer amid COVID-19 pandemic
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A man in a boat cruises up Sardis Creek on Lake Lanier Thursday, May 14, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

The coronavirus pandemic has punched a deep and costly hole in Hall County’s tourism industry, and conditions might not ease much with Memorial Day as the unofficial kickoff to summer.

“It is tough, especially for our hoteliers and attractions,” said Robyn Lynch, Gainesville’s tourism manager.

One major casualty this spring has been the cancellation of the American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championships, which annually brings more than 1,800 college athletes and their families to Gainesville over the Memorial Day weekend, “filling our hotels and restaurants,” said Robyn Lynch, Gainesville’s tourism manager.

That event alone averages about $1.8 million in economic impact.

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Illinois rowers celebrate after finishing first in the womens novice 4+ repechage 1 during the 2019 American Collegiate Rowing Association championship regatta at Lake Lanier Olympic Park on Saturday, May 25, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

But it gets worse.

The area also has seen revenue losses from the John Hunter Regatta rowing event, a couple of fishing tournaments and several other events, Lynch said.

“Tourism has taken a hit. However, we are very fortunate that most of our tourism revenue comes from recurring annual events,” she said. “We expect to see all of the events that have canceled come back in 2021.”

At a time when people are typically visiting the lake and other area attractions, COVID-19 has forced recreation areas to close or operate with restrictions. And if they are open, there are strong recommendations about social distancing.

Lake Lanier campgrounds now will be closed until at least May 31.

The Army Corps of Engineers had hoped to open the campgrounds on May 18, but “the ongoing presence of COVID-19 in North Georgia is still a public health and safety concern to federal operations in the region,” the Corps has said.

The Corps’ day-use parks, except for Buford Dam Park, were set to reopen Saturday, May 23, and 22 of its boat ramps around Lake Lanier were open, as of Thursday, May 21. However, beaches, shelters and playgrounds will remain closed.

Most of Georgia’s state parks and historic sites are open, including Don Carter State Park on Lake Lanier in North Hall.

Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for Georgia’s state parks and historic sites, said designated swimming beaches remain open, while pools and splash pads are closed.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources requires visitors to keep at least 6 feet from others and not gather with more than 10 people.

Also, all of Gainesville’s parks are open during Memorial Day weekend. People can visit any of Hall’s parks during the holiday weekend, with the exception of River Forks Park, the only one with a beach.

Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville, which shut down one week before a grand opening celebration for its children’s garden, is usually bustling this time of year.

“Memorial Day weekend is always a busy weekend for us,” said Mildred Fockele, lead horticulturist. “People are finished with school and ready to go out and do things. So, (the closure) is really unfortunate.”

The garden is looking to reopen early to mid-June with a system for members and visitors “that limits the number of people that come through at any one time,” Fockele said. “We want to make sure the visitation experience is safe for our guests … and the staff, as well.”

Lanier Islands resort in South Hall is open and closed in places.

The hotel, Legacy Lodge & Conference Center, is closed, but other accommodations, including lake houses, villas, the RV Resort and Shoal Creek Campground are open.

At Margaritaville at Lanier Islands, the beaches, restaurants, shopping, courtesy docks, marinas, margarita and brunch cruises and boat rentals are open. In compliance with state mandates, the water park won’t be open until at least the first week of June, according to Margaritaville’s website.

“Last weekend was unbelievable,” Lanier Islands spokeswoman Missy Burgess said. “Boats were everywhere. People are chomping at the bit for something to do.”

And golfing “has never been busier,” she said. “Every day is like a Saturday.”

Still, “there are many corporate, social and civic events that canceled this spring and summer,” said Stacey Dickson, Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau president.

“Group business makes up over half our tourism economy,” she added. “We will feel this impact for a while since gatherings are part of community health restrictions.”

On the more positive side, “there’s such a pent-up demand for travel, and with limited opportunities for the far-flung vacations people had planned and now have canceled, we are seeing a lot of local and regional people start to look at Lake Lanier and the Georgia mountains for travel inspiration,” Dickson said.

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A boat slowly passes slips at Gainesville Marina Wednesday, May 13, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

Trends “are leaning toward a surge in vacation rentals, cottages and camping as a first rebound in travel, since there is a sense of maintaining some social distancing while also traveling away from home,” she added.

Lynch also was similarly upbeat.

“Most of our attractions have been able to produce online tours and educational videos, keeping their venues on people’s minds and continuing to educate when possible,” she said.

Also, “we are starting to see a lot of interest in late summer and fall events,” Lynch said. “Outdoor events are popular because there are opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and still social distance.”

Hotels and attractions “have done a great job in preparing for visitors with the increased restrictions, and are ready to open when the time is right and people are comfortable exploring again,” Lynch said.

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A youth fishes at Sardis Creek Park Wednesday, May 13, 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers