The Summer of COVID-19 ends with health officials worried




 The Lost Summer of 2020 drew to a close Monday with many big Labor Day gatherings canceled across the U.S. and health authorities pleading with people to keep their distance from others so as not to cause another coronavirus surge like the one that followed Memorial Day.

Downtown Atlanta was quiet as the 85,000 or so people who come dressed as their favorite superheroes or sci-fi characters for the annual Dragon Con convention met online instead. Huge football stadiums at places like Ohio State and the University of Texas sat empty. Many Labor Day parades marking the unofficial end of summer were called off, and masks were usually required at the few that went on.

“Please, please do not make the same mistakes we all made on Memorial Day weekend. Wear your masks, watch your distance and wash your hands,” said Dr. Raul Pino, state health director in Orange County, Florida, which includes the Orlando area.

The U.S. had about 1.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases around Memorial Day, before backyard parties and other gatherings contributed to a summertime surge. It now has more than 6.2 million cases, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Deaths from the virus more than doubled over the summer to nearly 190,000.

In New Orleans, which had one of the largest outbreaks outside of New York City this spring, city officials reminded residents that COVID-19 doesn’t take a holiday after they received 36 calls about large gatherings and 46 calls about businesses not following safety rules on Friday and Saturday.

“This is not who we are, and this is not how we — as a community — get back to where we want to be,” the city said.

In South Carolina, which was a hot spot of contagion over the summer before cases started to decline in early August, 8,000 fans, including Gov. Henry McMaster, were allowed to attend the NASCAR race at the Darlington Raceway on Sunday. State officials approved a socially distant attendance plan at the track, which can hold 47,000 people.

It was the biggest gathering in the state since the outbreak started six months ago. Many rows and seats were kept empty to keep groups of fans apart, and people were asked to wear masks.

Debbie Katsanos drove down from New Hampshire with her husband, her father, and a friend. It was their first trip out of state since COVID-19 started spreading. They had time off because of the Labor Day weekend fair where they typically sell concessions canceled this year.

Katsanos said they wore masks at all times when they were away from their motor home, ate in a restaurant only once on the way down, and tried to stay socially distant when visiting with other people at their campground.

“It’s probably our only chance to get somewhere before the summer ends, ” Katsanos said Monday as she sat in traffic on Interstate 95 in North Carolina on the long trip home. “I saw it as the turning of the corner. We survived this. Let’s live life a little.”

In "normal" times, hotels in summer hot spots go into hibernation once Labor Day rolls around — but retreats are having strong fall seasons this year as the need for online learning and working from home fuels demand for longer stays.

Dana Bates and her husband, both biotech workers, and their 7-year-old daughter were already working and learning remotely from their home in Cloverdale, California. Then, smoke conditions from the California wildfires sent them in search of another venue.

They landed in a two-bedroom cabin at the Brasada Ranch resort near Bend, Oregon, where the self-contained units and attention to health and safety were reassuring during an especially stressful time.

"It was one level, with rooms on separate sides of the cabin and a desk in each room. Cleaning staff did not come every day, but you could leave bedding and towels out for pick-up and request fresh linens," Bates said. "It was comfortable. We made friends. And I felt very safe from COVID-19."

Remote workers everywhere, with or without children, are facing stress right now, and the uncertainty is trying, said Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. "Even for families not facing true economic hardship, there's the challenge of how do I keep my job, keep my kids in school, and stay safe."

To accommodate families seeking safe and supportive places to work and deal with remote schooling, more than 30 hotels in greater Miami rolled out a remote campaign with features like hair, makeup, and lighting help for virtual meetings to tutors, lunches, and "after school" programs for kids.

In the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina, hotels are working out collaborations with educational attractions, meal delivery options, and more.

It is too soon to tell whether remote work and work/school setups at hotels and resorts become a true trend, said Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights for the analytics provider STR. "We'll know that for sure in October," once school is in full swing, Freitag said.

For now, fall bookings are way up at Gurney's Resorts, which includes properties in Montauk, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. Gurney's Star Island Resort and Marina in Montauk said it had three times as many bookings for September compared to 2019.

"This has offset the expected losses from our group and wedding businesses," said Gurney's Resorts owner, George Filopoulos.

White Elephant Resorts, which operates four hotels on the island of Nantucket off Massachusetts, said leisure fall bookings are 36 percent higher this year than they were last year.

"With many children starting the year with online learning and the ability for parents to work from wherever it's allowing guests to be more flexible with their travel plans," said Khaled Hashem, White Elephant Resorts' managing director.

For those who want to double down, some resorts are going the extra mile, offering in-person or virtual tutoring services for children — and their parents. Auberge Resorts Collection, which has 19 properties around the world, just launched a program that includes tutoring for kids, educational seminars for adults and, in some locations, poolside "office cabanas."

Casa Marina resort in Key West, Florida, is offering a "school-cation" package with tours of the Key West Shipwreck Museum, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, and the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, as well as an escape room experience — and a bottle of wine so parents can wind down after a long day.

"These work-cation/school-cation concepts are not for everyone," said Gabe Saglie of Travelzoo. However, for those with flexibility and means, "a clever promotion can be enough to inspire travel that would otherwise not have been planned."

While some properties are developing new guest experiences, lodging operators will need to get creative if restaurants and activities are still shut down because of the coronavirus, said Robert Cole, senior analyst for the travel market research firm Phocuswright.

"Guests wishing to escape being confined to their homes are unlikely to enjoy being confined to a hotel room," Cole said.

It wasn't a clever promotion but "seemingly endless remote work challenges" due to the pandemic and a desire to escape "to a place where everything was thoughtful, safe and inclusive" that got Sarah Goldman and her husband to escape New York City recently for a cottage at the 500-acre Cedar Lakes Estate in the Hudson Valley. The retreat has pivoted from main weddings and corporate events to offer private stays that include activities, meals, and socially distanced cocktails.

Going back in the off-season is appealing, Goldman said. "I can't imagine there will be a lot open in Brooklyn — and we'll be going stir crazy."