HUNTINGTON — Shoppers, business owners and event hosts alike eagerly hope for better times as West Virginia slowly moves forward into summer.
“I’m like most people. I’m ready to get back to normal, whatever the new normal is going to be,” said Mike Shockley, director of sales at downtown Huntington’s Delta Hotels. “I’m excited to start seeing travel bans and restrictions lifted and doors opening back up. Downtown’s starting to come back, and so are we.”
Though many quarantine protocols and guidelines are still being used, restaurants, stores and other venues are beginning to revive themselves and cautiously open back up to the public.
While these businesses finally take in a relieving breath of fresh air, many annual events and celebrations are not.
A highlight for the lives of those who live in West Virginia and a source of important income from abroad, festivals and similar large events have been postponed or canceled due to social distancing guidelines in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Facing Hunger Foodbank announced last month that it had postponed its annual Italiano! Festival, which was previously scheduled for Aug. 15. Likewise, the West Virginia Hot Dog Festival, originally scheduled for July 25, was postponed to September.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty in several areas,” said Tyson Compton, president of the Huntington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “People are scared of catching the coronavirus by attending these events, and the hosts are afraid of potentially losing time and money by canceling or postponing them. It’s a really unusual and unfortunate time right now.”
Those fears are what have motivated both the Huntington and Charleston CVBs to adapt their focus and goals. Rather than being solely dedicated to assisting in the scheduling of events, both have taken it upon themselves to keep their routine partners up to date on COVID-19 information. That includes constant cooperation with local health departments to provide weekly updates on the virus.
The Huntington Area CVB in particular has curated and maintained a list of local retailers and restaurants that are open and what services they are able to provide to the public. The CVB also has weekly Zoom meetings with the state tourism department to learn and cooperate as much as possible.
The Huntington Area CVB is also aiming its advertising in a non-aggressive direction, prioritizing safety and local travel.
“We want people to know we’re here when they’re ready,” said Compton. “Our hotels and other services are all ready for business and following protocol. We’re making sure it will be as safe for them as possible.”
That’s an assessment many local businesses agree with.
“I’m both excited and anxious for Huntington to be how it used to be,” said Marcy Kitchen, general manager of DoubleTree by Hilton. “We’re doing everything recommended to us by the Cabell County health department and taking every precaution to get people coming back to us. We want to work.”
The hotel recently reopened its dining services.
Delta Hotels has remained open throughout the quarantine, and its management is relieved to see the local area starting to return to normal.
“The restaurants and stores coming back helps us,” said Shockley. “It gives people a reason to be here, to walk across the street and buy something or get a bite to eat. Every reopening is a victory for everyone.”
Many customers have resorted to buying their meals over online delivery services such as Grubhub or ChowNow, services the Huntington Black Sheep Burrito & Brews has joined.
“Many of our routine regulars have been ordering from us exclusively online,” said Jenna Kath, general manager of Black Sheep. “We’ve been really to-go heavy, especially during the first week we reopened, but we’re starting to see more and more people come back in.”
Black Sheep has had to change many of its usual habits in response to the quarantine. It has not yet been approved to bring back live musical performances, and it must space out parties larger than six people. All staff have been wearing masks and gloves.
Despite having adapted, the restaurant is longing for its old ways. Keeping up with takeout-heavy demands has been more expensive than the usual dine-in routine.
“I want to expand back into letting people dine outside and getting the music going again,” said Kath. “People enjoyed it, and we enjoyed it.”
A few events are following a similar trend, choosing to adapt and change their methods as opposed to simply closing down for the summer. One is Charleston’s FestivALL, which has transitioned into a purely online format for 2020.
“The staff at FestivALL have worked hard to put together an outstanding lineup of art entertainment across many disciplines,” said Tim Brady, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They’ve simply adjusted it to encourage social distancing and staying safe at home, while still supporting the artists who are going to make it all happen.”
Gov. Jim Justice last week gave the green light for West Virginia fairs and festivals to take place after July 1. Justice said under the strictest of guidelines, his health officials said it was OK to proceed. The guidelines have not yet been released.
The Cabell County Fair Board has said they were proceeding as if the fair could happen. The fair is scheduled for July 21-25 at Pumpkin Park in Milton.
The Putnam County Fair has canceled its 2020 event. Instead, it shifted its attention to livestock exhibits, with plans for an online auction in the works.
“Our events are strong, and they have an equally strong following,” said Compton. “I think they’re going to rebound in a really big way in 2021.”