Andy Zipser and his wife, Carin, are the owners of the Walnut Hills Campground & RV Park in Staunton, Virginia. We wrote recently about their predicament after the Virginia governor ordered the campground closed to all but long-term guests. It dealt a crushing blow to Andy and Carin and their family, who operate the park and depend on it for their livelihoods. Here is an update from Andy about how things are playing out. Hint: It’s a big fat bureaucratic mess!
By Andy Zipser
The approach of April 15 has long filled many people with foreboding, but this year it’s April 16 that proved more significant for us. That’s when the federal bail-out programs for small businesses ran out of gas, only midway through an initial application period that was supposed to run through April 30.
The drained accounts included $349 billion in the Paycheck Protection Program, plus an additional $10 billion that was to be parceled out in quickie grants of $10,000 each for businesses seeking Economic Injury Disaster Loans, designed to keep them limping along while their loan applications got processed.
IF YOU DO THE MATH, that means a whopping one million small businesses across the country have been cleared for the grants — and countless others who weren’t. No one really knows yet how many didn’t make the cut before the money ran out. As for the more substantial Paycheck Protection Program, the 1.6 million loans that were approved represent fewer than half of all submitted applications. In my state of Virginia, for example, fewer than 37% got an okay, which means nearly two-thirds of us are twisting in the wind.
But tossing around millions and billions is a bit abstract, so here’s how the coronavirus has slammed one particular campground. In March, as the pandemic gathered steam but before Virginia’s governor issued an executive order that shut us down until June 10, we lost $35,000 in bookings. In the first two weeks of April, following the March 30 executive order, we lost another $45,000. Total registrations for the year to date, after a very strong January and February that somewhat muted subsequent losses, are down 21% compared to the same period last year.
That’s why, like millions of others in our situation, we jumped on the federal bailout package as soon as possible, filing an application for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan on March 27 and for the PPP program on April 3. But then it all started to bog down. On completing the EIDL application we received a number that apparently doesn’t connect to anything — there’s no online tracking system — and not one thing more. No way of knowing if we filled out the online form correctly. No way of knowing if the feds want more documentation. Nada. It’s as though we’d thrown a pebble into a large lake and watched it sink with scarcely a ripple.
Separately, we submitted our PPP application to a local branch of a large regional bank, only to be told we’d have to go online. There followed a flurry of email exchanges, as an earlier form was supplanted by a newer form, followed by several requests for documentation that had already been provided. Interspersed in this back-and-forth were a couple of emails explaining that the bank was toiling mightily to train hundreds, perhaps thousands of employees in how to process this tidal wave of supplicants. Eventually the emails trickled away, then stopped altogether. The fate of our application? Unknown.
SO THAT’S OUR REALITY, and by extension the reality of thousands of RV parks across the country, although Virginia is on the extreme end of the spectrum. We’ve done a decent job of pulling in campers for two-week stays by offering a 50 percent discount, filling most of our full hook-up sites, but those bigger time blocks also mean sites have week-long and ten-day gaps between reservations.
All our cabins are sitting empty and will stay that way until June, and nobody’s camping in a tent. And our non-sewered sites, tolerable for weekenders but not so much for someone camping more than a few days, remain empty despite our offer of two free honey-wagon pump-outs per week, leaving half of the campground lying fallow.
Somewhat off-setting this bleak description has been the generosity of the RVing community in general and of our regular campers specifically. Ever since Chuck Woodbury wrote in RVtravel.com two weeks ago highlighting the extreme situation in Virginia — no other state has as lengthy a stay-at-home order — and published our letter to RVers arriving after hours without a reservation, we’ve had an outpouring of supportive emails and telephone calls. One of our regular campers, after canceling a May reservation, called back to buy a $1,000 gift card. Overnighters, heeding our invitation to be our unpaid guests so they have a safe space off the road, have responded with notes of gratitude and donations from a few bucks to $50 for the night.
Perhaps most touchingly, Tom and Cheri at enjoythejourney.life, a YouTube channel, read my note posted on RVtravel.com on their show (video is below) and teared up in doing so — and prompted another outpouring of support.
Meanwhile, if there’s one thing we’ve learned in all this, it’s that our policymakers have little if any understanding of the RV world. It’s clear that most lawmakers view campgrounds as playgrounds, a place for people to kick back and party — and there’s certainly a lot of that. But as readers of RV Travel already know, this world of ours is far more complex than that. There are a million or so full-timers in the U.S. for whom their RV is their home. Countless others rely on their RVs as a base while working itinerant jobs, be it on a pipeline or in a hospital, even if they have a permanent home somewhere. Still others live in RVs as students, or while staying near a hospital for several days or weeks for specialized treatment, or while building a house in a nearby community.
These are all RVers, too, and they don’t fit the recreational stereotype that governs how lawmakers are responding to this crisis. Campendium has calculated that 44% of all RV sites in the country have been shut down by federal, state and county officials — and there’s no evidence that those officials have given any thought to where the people they’re displacing are going to go, or where they’re going to stay while they’re getting there. That clearly is an ignorance that has to be addressed long-term by the industry at large, and by all those who have bought into this lifestyle, if we’re to prevent a similar over-reaction the next time around — and there will be a next time.
Meanwhile, we’ll do our best to be good hosts within the constraints by which we’re bound, both legal and financial. And please know we’re grateful for the support and thanks with which you’ve responded. Stay healthy — safe travels.
Andy can be reached at (540) 337-3920 daily between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. and again between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. If you call outside those hours, please leave a message for a return call, or email firstname.lastname@example.org . EDITOR’S NOTE: Consider purchasing a gift card for your favorite Virginian RVer.
BELOW IS THE VIDEO THAT ANDY DISCUSSED ABOVE. The point in the video where they talk about Andy and his park begins at the 6-minute mark.