Local attractions continue to bring tourists to DeKalb

A couple explores the view from Wolf Creek Overlook inside Little River Canyon National Preserve. The attraction’s remoteness may appeal to out-of-town guests who want to enjoy warmer weather and wide open spaces free of huge crowds, making social distancing easier. Locals who traditionally go to the beach for a week may stay closer to home this summer so they can save money as the economy restarts.

What will the summer of 2020 look like in DeKalb County with several events canceled or postponed and uncertainty remaining about the pandemic? Not all that different from most summers, actually.

We do not yet know the full impact of COVID-19 on tourism, but Visit Lookout Mountain Alabama President/CEO John Dersham said it is sure to have a “big impact and continue to affect activities” in the area, likely into 2021.

“It will impact the numbers [of travelers] as more people travel that are infected with the coronavirus and do not know it,” said Dersham. He urged visitors to follow guidelines on social distancing and wearing protective face masks so their fun is not ruined.

Many June events were canceled before the state started loosening restrictions on public gatherings. Alabama recently re-opened entertainment venues such as arcades, movie theaters, concert venues, auditoriums, performing centers, tourist attractions like museums, race tracks, commercial and public playgrounds, adult entertainment venues, casinos, bingo halls and bowling alleys at half their normal capacity. Gov. Kay Ivey stressed “personal responsibility” when sharing these spaces with others.

June is always a busy time for DeKalb tourism with summer officially arriving and Alabama Fan Appreciation Weekend typically attracting out-of-town visitors. Alabama Fan Club and Museum Manager Mary Jones said the event is postponed due to the impossibility of socially distancing without cutting down on the number of fans who could attend. She said they are waiting on further guidance from Gov. Kay Ivey and would love to have events go forward in July, if possible.

Jones said the museum and gift shop reopened last week and have done well so far: “A lot more people are traveling right now than I expected,” she said. “A lot of people are going on vacations. We’ve just got to be cautious because we have guests from all over the country.”

For many kids, camp offers the quintessential summer experience, but only one of the Mentone camps opted to go forward with sessions due to a lack of timely guidance from the state. The camps usually bring a lot of traffic from parents dropping off or picking up their kids. Tourism efforts were also impacted by the Easter Sunday flooding of the Welcome Center off the southern interchange of Interstate 59.

The Fort Payne City Council recently voted to skip this year’s Boom Days festival, which has become a late-summer tradition, citing a reluctance to approach businesses about the necessary sponsorships while they struggle to recover.

Despite the lost opportunities, DeKalb County is uniquely situated to possibly benefit from a desire by families to get outside to enjoy warmer weather in more remote places where crowds aren’t tightly packed in confined spaces after months of isolating at home under quarantine.

Dersham said hotel occupancy is not yet typical for May numbers, but “they are doing much better than in the last couple of months. Campgrounds and cabins are getting steady bookings.”

He expects the local economy to bounce back “pretty well” based on several things:

• There are 11 million people living within a 200-mile radius of DeKalb County.

• Many of those people do not want to fly right now because of the coronavirus, so they will drive further than they normally would. “In our case, being only two or three hours from 11 million people makes us an ideal get-a-way trip to include a night or two in lodging. The lodging is critical to our success because day trips do not create as much consumer spending. We will get a lot of tourists that would have gone to bigger destination but did not want to go that far or risk flying,” said Dersham.

• Because DeKalb County is a rural area, many travelers view it as a relatively safe trip, with attractions mostly outdoors and easier to accommodate social distancing. Dersham said this is a plus as long as visitors practice good CDC guidelines themselves.

Lee Sentell of the Alabama Tourism Department said the state’s travel and hospitality industry suffered a 76 percent drop in expenditures during the stay-at-home period, affecting an estimated 200,000 people working in restaurants and lodging.

With the U.S. economy slowly recovering from a near-three month shutdown, some local families may be more cautious than usual about taking vacations of their own, opting for “staycations” that allow them to visit attractions within a day’s drive of DeKalb County so they save money they would normally spend staying a week in a hotel in a faraway city.

Some possible fun spots just down the road include DeSoto State Park, Little River Canyon National Preserve, the Alabama Fan Club & Museum and Fort Payne Motor Speedway in Fort Payne, Buck’s Pocket State Park and High Falls in Grove Oak, Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel and DeSoto Falls in Mentone, Tigers for Tomorrow in Attalla, Collinsville Trade Day, sights along the Lookout Mountain Parkway and more. A little farther out, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville offers an exciting look at the space program while museums in Birmingham commemorate Alabama’s civil war and civil rights history. Just an hour away in Chattanooga, the Hunter Museum, Northshore shops and rides like the Incline await.

National Public Radio examined 14 traditional summer activities with infectious disease and public health experts rating how risky they are as COVID-19 cases continue to grow in the state.

They rated a day spent at the beach or in a pool as “low risk” due to the volume of water diluting the virus so that the water becomes a highly unlike source of infection. Potential trouble spots are entry points and shared bathrooms. The experts said letting a friend use your bathroom, exercising outdoors, going camping or going to a vacation house with another family are also likely low risk.

Activities rated as “low to medium risk” included a BYOB backyard gathering with one other household, using a public restroom and staying at a hotel. Activities rated as “medium to high risk” included eating indoors at a restaurant, getting a haircut and participating in an outdoor celebration such as a wedding with more than 10 guests. The experts rated both going to a nightclub and attending indoor religious services as “high risk” – unless congregants are appropriately socially distanced, wear facemasks and avoid singing or sharing worship items like hymnals. Learn more at https://www.npr.org/sections/health -shots/2020/05/23/861325631/from-camping-to-dining-out-heres-how-experts-rate-the-risks-of-14-summer-activit

For more information about local attractions, visit https://visitlookoutmountain.com/.

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