Ala. cuts a third of its food, hotel workers in 2 weeks

Orange Beach, photo courtesy Alabama Department of Tourism
Orange Beach, photo courtesy Alabama Department of Tourism
Updated: Apr. 9, 2020 at 5:20 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Tourism in Alabama is usually booming during this time of year as spring break wraps up and summer plans begin to sizzle.

Tourism is fun, but it’s also a big business. In 2019, the industry pulled in 29 million visitors and $18 billion. It was on pace to top those numbers in 2020. Then COVID-19 happened.

It’s usually a time for the Alabama Department of Tourism to tout white, sandy beaches and watch as crowds pile up. But the only thing the department is watching pile up at this point is an astounding number of jobless claims.

The pandemic has rapidly decimated the state’s tourism work force as people have been ordered to stay home and social distance. That means no visitors, no trips, no spending, and for thousands of workers, no jobs.

How bad is it? Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell says a third of the state’s food and hotel employees have seen their jobs vanish in the last two weeks. That’s more than 30,000 workers.

Last year 75,000 people worked in the food service industry and another 30,000 were employed in operating the state’s 75,000 hotel rooms, the tourism department said. They earned $2 billion in wages.

Now, they’re being thrown onto the state’s unemployment rolls in record time. And it could get worse.

The Alabama Restaurant & Hospitality Association recently estimated a quarter of a million of the state’s hotel and restaurant workers could be laid off.

And it’s not just those empty white, sandy beaches causing tourism dollars to dry up. Museums and other attractions that draw crowds and help create indirect jobs for the industry are also being impacted. Nearly 210,000 jobs depended on the hospitality industry last year, generating nearly $6 billion in wages.

Some restaurants have tried to adjust to the pandemic, switching to take-out orders to keep their doors open. But Sentell says the income is “only a fraction of what is normal.”

Still, the tourism head agrees with Gov. Kay Ivey’s recent state-at-home order that’s aimed at limited the illness’s spread, telling people to "stay home and not congregate at restaurants or any place else.”

Sentell sees relief on the horizon, though, predicting Americans will quickly get back to traveling when the pandemic is brought under control.

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