Governor’s end date for COVID restrictions brings optimism to Visalia businesses

Ben Irwin

Governor’s June 15 back-to-normal date spurs excitement amongst local hospitality, tourism industries and local businesses

VISALIA – After members of the tourism and hospitality industry publicly pleaded for guidance from the governor on reopening for trade shows and conventions, Shelly Albanese, general manager of the Visalia Convention Center, said she feels like their voices have been heard.

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued updated COVID-19 guidelines at a press conference last week, including updated guidelines for indoor conventions, seated live events and performances, as well as a hopeful June 15 end to all COVID-related restrictions as long as vaccinations remain on-pace.

“Honestly, they’re better than we could have expected,” Albanese said. “Ultimately, the work paid off that we have all done in the hospitality industry, the convention center coalition and the tourism industry.”

Updated guidelines for conventions go into effect April 15, which at the orange tier, where Tulare County currently resides, allow for indoor activities if all guests are tested or show full proof of vaccination, with a limited capacity of 150 people. Albanese said for the most part they are planning for the June 15 open season at the convention center, but will not turn down any opportunities in the meantime should they arise.

Nellie Freeborn, executive director of Visit Visalia, said because the Visalia Convention Center usually serves around 500 to 1,700 people at large conventions—as of June 15 the state will only require conventions of over 5,000 to require proof of vaccinations or testing—they should be in the clear to truly reopen for business as usual, without social distancing or capacity restrictions. She said the hospitality and tourism industry is starting to feel the pressure release from pent up demand.

“It has been just all of a sudden, the faucet turned on, and the phone calls literally started to flood in,” Freeborn said with a laugh. “So that pent up demand that we’ve all been talking about and hoping for certainly feels like the last half of this year is going to be really prosperous for our community.”

Freeborn said the Visalia Convention & Visitors Bureau—a nonprofit that supports the local hospitality and tourism industries at zero charge to businesses—already has around 8 conventions on the books for the second half of 2021, representing over 2,000 room nights regionally, which brings in local hotel tax revenue.

“When those conventions come in, they really don’t just come into our buildings,” Freeborn said, “they come into our communities, they gas up and buy amenities, and they go eat in our restaurants. It’s really about the support that comes into our community.”

Carrie Groover, general manager of Visalia’s Marriott Hotel, said she’s seeing a lot of pent up demand for weddings, and hopes to see the celebrations back in full swing this summer.

Freeborn said the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) accreditation for cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention protocols that Albanese secured for the Convention Center, and similar safety protocols the adjacent Marriott Hotel has gone through are important to give guests the confidence to safely return to a sense of normalcy.

All in all, Freeborn said the future is looking optimistic.

“Everyone in the community has lived through this difficult time,” Freeborn said, “but we’re looking ahead, and we’re excited about that.”

Optimism among Visalia businesses, but lessons of pandemic not soon forgotten

Many of Visalia’s local businesses owners feel like they’ve been through the ringer with the seemingly ever-changing COVID-19 laws and guidelines, and some have struggled to keep up or stay open at all. Gail Zurek, CEO of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, said there is a lot of excitement around the proposed June 15 end to the colored tier program.

“I think it’s a sign that we’re coming out on the other side of things,” Zurek said. “I would say in the restaurant, entertainment and tourism sectors, there are some who felt like another change of rules might not make it for them.”

Zurek said she was particularly concerned for restaurants going into the heat of summer.

“People’s tolerance and understanding only goes so far when it’s 107,” Zurek said. “I think a lot of those guys are pretty excited to put away the K-rails, take down the tents and welcome people back into air conditioning.”

While the excitement for a post-COVID guidelines summer is real, Zurek said there’s still a desire for a thoughtful and safe reopening.

“I think the lessons that have been learned in the pandemic will not quickly be forgotten,” Zurek said. “Some of the lessons, as we’ve talked to business owners, is that customer service has changed during this time, and the way we instruct employees to be thoughtful. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”

Zurek said she thinks it will be a while before everyone feels fully comfortable being in a crowded space, but that the lack of foot traffic for businesses has taught local business owners the importance of an online presence.

“We used to be a community that, prior to the pandemic, could get by solely by word of mouth,” Zurek said. “The lesson of that is, we don’t have that luxury anymore. I’ve heard from other business leaders the lessons of making sure that the information about their business, whether it’s a good or a service, is accessible online.”

Zurek thinks some of the radical changes in the use of technology in business are here to stay.

“Even at the chamber there are some events that we’ve done virtually that might stay virtual,” Zurek said. “Some of those things I think will just naturally be interfaced that way when we move forward. A lot of businesses are wrestling with virtual office spaces versus a full reopening of offices.”

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