By Andy Zipser
Owner, Walnut Hills RV Park, Staunton, Virginia
Never underestimate the power of one individual to effect change – especially if that person is hysterical. Case in point: This past Monday, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, issued a “temporary stay at home” edict. Tucked into the middle of this order is the one sentence that has upended our lives, commanding the “cessation of all reservations for overnight stays of less than 14 nights at all privately-owned campgrounds.”
The order makes no mention of any other sector of the hospitality industry, leaving hotels, motels, resorts, B&Bs and all other lodging open for business. As icing on the cake, the order is effective for more than two months, until June 10.
And, just like that, we teeter on the edge of insolvency. Ninety percent of our business is short-term campers, anything from over-nighters traveling the I-81 corridor to residents within a 250-mile radius looking to camp with us for a few days.
So for the past week we’ve been burning up the phone lines, calling literally scores of campers to tell them we have to move or cancel their reservations. Some are rescheduling for the fall, when we all hope the virus pandemic will have petered out. Some are accepting rain checks, good until December 2021 and packaged with a 25% discount coupon. A few are accepting our BOGO offer: pay for a one-week stay and we’ll throw in a second week for free, meeting the executive order’s arbitrary 14-day threshold. Anything, in other words, not to have to return the deposits we’ve already taken in — and yet, despite all that, a tide of red ink is threatening to overwhelm us.
In just the first three days following the March 30 order we’ve voided more than $20,000 in reservations, and we’ve yet to finish working our way through April.
MAY STILL AWAITS, including the fully booked Memorial Day weekend. Our occupancy rate for April is now looking to be less than a third of last year’s 30%. I haven’t had the heart to start calculating what it will be in May, when the season historically starts swinging into high gear.
So okay — life is tough all over. Lots of businesses are on the ropes, and the ranks of the unemployed are swelling by the millions. I get it. But the question that has to be asked, in every instance that our lives get curtailed by executive fiat, is how a particular edict protects public welfare. The state has a legitimate interest in proscribing behavior that further enables the pandemic that is ravaging the world. But short of martial law that confines everyone to their homes — presumably with roadblocks at the state borders to keep out non-Virginians — people will be traveling. They will need a place to stay, other than a highway shoulder.
So why were campgrounds singled out for special treatment, while all those sticks-and-bricks accommodations are allowed to continue serving the traveling public? Why is the most self-contained, inherently socially distancing form of shelter shunted aside, but not facilities that flip rooms every day that must be accessed through public hallways and elevators? Why are RVs, whose occupants have their own linens, their own beds, their own bathrooms and their own cooking and dining facilities, regarded as a grave threat to public safety?
ENTER THE HYSTERICAL POLITICIAN — no, not Governor Northam, although he deserves a measure of opprobrium for his role in this sorry mess. Rather, the problem arose with a Virginia delegate who reportedly heard from a friend that there were too many people crowding into the state’s campgrounds on the Eastern Shore. The delegate then conveyed that opinion to others in state government, lamenting with a note of urgency that . . .
. . . “travelers to the campgrounds will take all our food” and complaining that “there are thousands of travelers coming from all over the country.” “People will die if we don’t do something,” he was quoted as saying to a campground official.
That “something” landed with a thud just days later, as the panicky prognosis rippled throughout the Old Dominion’s legislative halls and seeped into the governor’s office. There was no prior consultation with the state’s privately owned campgrounds, no heads-up on the draconian prohibition that was coming, no articulated rationale for the knee-capping we would all experience this week.
There are other consequences of the ban that are still emerging. One is the predicament it has created for RVers themselves, including a substantial number of Canadians and New Englanders who are still struggling to get home from their wintering grounds in Florida, the Gulf Coast and New England.
Interstate 81 traverses 325 miles of Virginia landscape, much of it hilly enough to require construction of separate truck lanes. The executive order means RVers are unable to reserve a site for the night anywhere along this section of their route, and reports are that Pennsylvania is just as buttoned up. Care to be on the same highways as these over-tired fifth-wheel and motorcoach drivers?
ANOTHER IS THE RIFT the ban has exposed between private campgrounds that cater to transients and those that are predominantly focused on the seasonal camper. The latter tend to be much larger properties (especially on the sun-and-surf oriented eastern end of the state), with only a tiny slice of their revenue coming from overnighters, and most haven’t even opened for the season yet. For them, a two-month ban on short-term stays approaches a rounding error for the year’s financial results; for campgrounds like ours, it’s catastrophic. For them, with openings still more than two weeks away, there’s time to lobby and pressure for a reversal; for us, every day under the “new normal” means that many more refunds and cancellations we have to absorb.
The most problematic consequence, however, means a more far-reaching disruption of our business model — one that may be irreversible for many, many months. Because as our ability to take short-term reservations gets frozen, our only recourse has been to start converting our overnight sites to seasonals. We make less money that way — but still more than if the sites sit empty. But the long-term implication is that once we get past this pandemic and business elsewhere returns to something more familiar, we’ll still be dealing with commitments that will have removed even more overnight sites from the nation’s shrinking inventory.
If for no other reason, that alone should prompt dedicated RVers to petition Governor Northam to rethink his ban. You and your friends can do so here.
Andy and his staff can be reached at (540) 337-3920 daily between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Or visit the park’s website.