SPRINGFIELD — Leaders from the state’s tourism and hospitality industry asked legislators for additional support and reopening guidance during a committee hearing as the state plans next steps for its COVID-19 economic recovery.
Michael Jacobson, President, and CEO of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, told the House Tourism Committee that hotels have “been among the hardest hit” segment of the economy due to the pandemic and that the industry may not see a full recovery until 2024 at the earliest.
“The situation is certainly looking encouraging, but there’s still a lot of work to do in order for the hotel and tourism industry to fully recover,” Jacobson said. “This is not going to be a recovery in one or two years, it’s going to be a several-year process.”
Jacobson said Illinois hotels suffered a loss of $3.5 billion in revenue and that over 21,000 hotel employees were laid off as a result of the pandemic over the past year.
Jacobson told legislators that allowing events and gatherings to resume in a safe manner as soon as possible and directing federal support dollars to hotels and businesses most impacted by the pandemic would be key to revitalizing that segment of the economy, which generates billions of dollars in revenue for the state every year.
“Besides keeping our employees and guests healthy and safe, our top priority is simple, getting hotel workers back to work. Our hotels want to get back up and running, but need direct financial support in the short term,” Jacobson said.
In addition to short-term financial assistance, Jacobson and industry leaders also said passing limited COVID-19 liability protections for businesses would help hotels and businesses to work toward a full recovery.
However, even with a reopening plan in place, industry leaders said that many questions remain for businesses across the state.
Rob Karr, President, and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said additional guidance from the state on reopening guidelines would be needed in order for struggling businesses to get back on their feet.
Karr said that while industry leaders welcomed additional flexibility for events and gatherings under the state’s recently announced “bridge phase” to reopening, questions remain over how businesses would effectively enforce capacity guidelines as outlined under the plan.
“We need to maximize our businesses, the theory that you’re open and you’re doing okay, is just not accurate. No one’s businesses were built to survive at 50 percent or even 75 percent occupancy,” Karr said.
Under guidelines set forth in the state’s bridge phase, vaccinated individuals would not count against a business or venue’s capacity restrictions, but Karr questioned how businesses or local authorities would be able to enforce those restrictions.
“Currently, the guidance from the state is businesses each on their own are required to figure out how to prove up whether somebody is fully vaccinated. Respectfully, that’s untenable,” Karr added.
Jacobson told the committee that a possible alternative would be to base capacity guidelines and mitigations on hospitalization utilization rather than case positivity as more of the state’s population is vaccinated.
“This is something that we’ve seen a big shift in the governor and (Illinois Department of Public Health’s) approach in recent weeks, and we are supportive of,” Jacobson said.
Derek Blaida, representing the Illinois Restaurant Association, echoed similar concerns for the state’s food service industry, which also relies heavily on events and tourism for business.
Blaida said 20 percent of Illinois restaurants are expected to close permanently and that over 124,000 food service jobs have been lost as a result of the pandemic.
“We need to keep building on pragmatic approaches to reopening regulations, so we can plan for and attract conventions, annual events, festivals and more back to our state,” Blaida said. “Our world class restaurants, hotels and event venues cannot lose another summer due to regulations and occupancy caps that are just too strict.”
“We just want to be steadily moving forward with incremental changes so restaurants can keep their doors open, keep serving communities, and keep people employed,” he added.