COVID-19 Shutdown Has Taken A Hit On Ohio Tourism

Jun 22, 2020
Originally published on June 22, 2020 3:00 pm

Summertime is prime time for amusement parks, zoos and other venues. But the months of shutdown and the limits on operations – plus safety concerns from consumers – are all having a big impact on communities that rely on tourism dollars.

Even though COVID-19 case numbers and deaths have plateaued in Ohio, they are still ticking up. But this past week zoos, museums and amusement and water parks in Ohio could reopen under specific guidelines. 

The roller coasters at Cedar Point will be operating soon but the park will be opening a month and a half late. And it’s operating on a limited basis due to mandated distance spacing and limits on attendance.

The same is true with the indoor water park down the street, Kalahari, which opened this past week.

Last May, Kalahari brought  in more than $660 thousand in lodging tax alone. This year, that number was zero. And Kalahari generated nearly $2.5 million in sales tax last May but none this May. Matt Old is a Republican county commissioner in Erie County.

“It’s interesting that so many people, about 11 million come here every year to go to Kalahari Resorts, Cedar Point, Castaway Bay, Great Wolf Lodge, the Sandusky Speedway, Kelley’s Island and Put-in-Bay and we just have a ton of things to do. We are really lucky," Old says.

Old says he’s anticipating a 20% reduction in sales tax because of the shutdown.

“We think this year it’s going to be a total of around $5 million to just Erie County’s general fund. That’s not talking about the whole economic impact throughout the whole region. That will be substantially larger," Old says.

So, when restaurants and bars were opening up last month yet event centers like Kalahari couldn’t, they went to court, saying the state lacked legal authority to keep those venues closed. Curt Hartman, one of the attorneys representing entertainment venues that sued the state, says closures of some of them has affected nearly all of them.

“We’re dealing with vendors. We are dealing with opportunities for sales to occur and there’s the ripple effect that happens. When you have one event, you are looking at hotels, you are looking at convenience stores, supply stores and stuff like that and it all makes an impact on the communities and in the Kalahari case up in Erie County, that was one of the major employers throughout the whole region," Hartman says.

The day after the lawsuit was filed, the state announced the dates and conditions for those venues to open, and a judge ruled that could happen immediately. 

But with deliberately lowered attendance and lingering concerns about coronavirus, Erie County’s leaders worry that will mean gaping holes in the county and Sandusky city budgets that they will have to fill later. The same is true in Warren County in southwest Ohio, home to Kings Island, the other Ohio amusement park owned by Cedar Point’s parent company Cedar Fair. 

Even in areas where tourism isn’t the major driver for the economy, like Columbus, local leaders still expect to take a hit. But Democratic Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady says the cost of public health needs to be considered too.

“The city of Columbus hasn’t opened Berliner Park, which is a major revenue source for the city of Columbus. That being said, packing all of those families into a place like Berliner Park to have a big softball tournament maybe isn’t the greatest idea right now," O'Grady says.

O’Grady says Franklin County is also losing money from college and high school sports. The county has received some federal dollars, and has a reserve so it hasn’t had to lay off employees. But he says events like the Memorial Tournament next month and Ohio State Football games have been scaled back, which will have a financial impact.

And last month the Ohio State Fair – which brings in nearly a million visitors to Columbus for nearly two weeks every summer – announced it wouldn’t go on. It’s the first time the Ohio State Fair has been canceled since World War II. This week Interim Ohio Department of Health Director Lance Himes signed an order to allow county fairs to go on, with limitations. But many fairs have already cancelled for this year.

Copyright 2020 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.