Outer Banks Re-opens with cautious optimism
If ever there was an appropriate topic for a column that’s titled “OBX Buzz” the re-opening of the Outer Banks to visitors would have to top the list.
For locals and visitors alike separating the hype from reality has been challenging.
At 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, May 16th the entry checkpoints in Manns Harbor and at the eastern foot of the Wright Memorial Bridge were no more. Some local media outlets were at the latter bridge, video cameras running, allegedly showing a huge backup of cars waiting to enter the area at this unlikely hour.
The truth of the matter was that line of traffic was rather small and non-existent a few minutes later.
As the sun rose on Saturday the usual crowd of social media skeptics—most of whom were opposed to allowing even non-resident property owners on the beach, much less visitors were describing the place as ‘packed’, stores as ‘jammed’ and social distancing rules flagrantly disregarded.
Yes—the Outer Banks was definitely more crowded than it had been the prior week, but in no way were we packed. As the week has progressed the main roads are still fairly empty, and the stores are not bursting at the seams with thousands of shoppers.
In fact, it appeared many of the first arrivals after the deadline were day trippers from nearby North Carolina and Virginia communities heading to Corolla and it’s 4WD beaches and weekend visitors who stayed in motels rather than a longer rental home visit.
All of this could change as the weather improves and families decide how and if they will vacation this year. But it’s probably a safe bet we won’t see the usual numbers this summer as many Americans are as wary of travel as those of us who live here and have canceled our own vacations in the era of COVID-19.
But for those who do visit us here are some observations and expectations we hope you take to heart.
First and foremost—yes, there are locals who don’t want the area to be opened to any visitors. I am sure this is no different than what one might experience in any resort community.
But understand that most Outer Bankers I know who earn their living from the tourism industry are ready to open while expressing a desire to do so in phases. These are my own observations, so I do not claim to speak for everyone. But I’ve lived here for almost three decades, co-owned the most widely read news site on the Outer Banks for a decade and believe I am at least somewhat qualified to assess the general pulse of the region.
And for those businesses that decide to open—they need and want those visitor dollars. Even with the limited openings allowed some businesses have already closed forever and others will not survive a “phased in” summer. So understand many locals appreciate your willingness to visit here!
Regional media outlets in Hampton Roads, Washington, D.C., Raleigh, Charlotte and other areas have far exaggerated the extreme positions taken by a small minority of locals on social media, particularly Facebook. Even national news outlets, such as the New York Times gave far more ink to those opposed than they did to locals who held vastly differing views.
But remember COVID is something to be taken seriously and many of the local workers you encounter are in the service or retail industry—they are not highly paid and are now on the front lines—essential and non-essential workers alike. Yes, they need the work. But they are also concerned.
So here’s some tips to help smooth the re-opening experience:
1) Practice social distancing everywhere you can—in stores, on the beach or any public space. Just as the media has overhyped the negative voices along the OBX, national media reminds locals that the states many visitors reside are described as COVID hotspots—so some nervousness and fear on the part of locals is natural. Do what you can to make those workers feel as though you are concerned for their safety regardless of your own feelings on masks, distancing and other practices designed to ‘slow the spread’.
2) Remember we’re are not fully opened. Bars, seated dining with service (indoor or outdoor), amusements (water parks, putt-putt, movies, hair salons) all remain closed. These decisions are made by our governor and not local officials---and definitely not the owners or employees of local businesses. Don’t take out your frustrations or disagreement with these policies on them!
3) For what it’s worth our liquor stores are open.
4) Are your local grocery stores, big box stores and pharmacies lacking inventories of meats, canned goods, paper products, disinfectants and the like? So are ours—and we’ve been short of these items since February when only 40,000 of us were living here. Now that our daily population is poised to rise to 80,000 to 200,000 a day (depending upon how many visitors actually decide to vacation here) remember to buy only what you need for your stay. The last thing we need to see on social media are photos of tourists buying essential goods in excess of a week’s use---especially those of us who are supporting the reopening and expecting our visitors to act responsibly. We can’t defend the re-opening if visitors are irresponsible.
5) Be patient—especially with food orders from restaurants. Takeout and curbside pickup is available and more restaurants are re-opening daily. But these owners are still suffering losses---they have rents and mortgages that are based on the size and volume of their business space. No amount of take-out is going to cover costs for a restaurant that usually serves up hundreds of plates to seated diners every day. Phone lines will be busy and wait times for food pickup extended as everyone—including locals- are utilizing the takeout option.
6) Tip more than usual. On a typical lunch or dinner session during a normal tourist season a server would be handling multiple tables that turn over three or four times. The average ticket might be well over $100 and even more for larger parties, especially since beer, wine and mixed drinks are often included. Take-out orders will mean significantly fewer diners and smaller tickets. And many customers don’t see the need to tip well for takeout. Change that habit. Tip as if you were dining in, remember it is very expensive to live here, and make that tip as large as you can!
7) We’re not a food delivery kind of place. Grubhub, Uber Eats and the like have never gained a foothold here for many reasons and while some restaurants have added delivery during the off-season to stay alive amidst thus crisis we don’t have the staff or employee base here to run the kind of food delivery options you may have access to back home.
8) And speaking of staff---we are very short-handed. The Outer Banks boasts just under 40,000 residents. We don’t have enough young locals to handle the daily 200,000+ population present in the tourist season. And housing here is too expensive to attract summer help from outlying areas such as college students looking for summer jobs. For the past decade we’ve relied on international students—as many as 3,000 to man our stores, restaurants and amusements during the summer.
Those workers have not been allowed into the country this year as part of the COVID restrictions on immigration—meaning everyone is in the same boat labor wise. With some businesses closed it’s likely some of that void can be filled with unemployed local workers—but if the visitor numbers are large there’s going to be a shortage of workers. So once again—patience is the key.
So—please do come to the Outer Banks. We need you and we miss you. I for one enjoy mingling with our visitors in the summer so I’ll miss sitting with you at a bar or talking on a beach.
But perhaps 2021 will be different. For this year enjoy the outdoors, stay safe in your rental homes and condos and remember—everyone who is working those front lines are taking a risk—they deserve respect, patience, appreciation and concern for their health! Make it good experience for all of us!