Park City restaurant closed until ski season, illustrating depths of downturn
It was the middle of March when the Park City economy shuttered as the novel coronavirus spread during a usually lucrative month for the community with spring-break crowds arriving for the final weeks of the ski season.
The tourism industry instead cratered as the mountain resorts and restaurants closed, and lodging properties emptied. As Park City reaches the middle of summer, many have been surprised with what has appeared to be a modest comeback for the tourism-based economy. Main Street has seemed busier than some had expected, and the mountain resorts are open for summer operations.
But some remain cautious about the business environment even amid the pickup of the last month. One case, at the Resort Center at the base of Park City Mountain Resort, is especially intriguing as the business community and the wider community of Park City prepare for the rest of the summer, the fall shoulder season and then the start of the 2020-2021 ski season.
The Corner Store Pub & Grill at the Resort Center will not reopen until the start of the ski season, the owner, Max Doilney, said, choosing to remain closed through what is normally a solid stretch of business in the summer. The owner’s status as a member of the Park City Council makes the decision regarding an extended closure even more noteworthy as Doilney straddles the public and private sectors at a time when both are challenged financially. The Corner Store Pub & Grill normally remains open on the weekends during the spring shoulder season before reopening on a seven-day schedule in the middle of June and then returning to weekends only in the fall. This year, though, Doilney said in an interview, the closure will last until the PCMR ski season begins, normally sometime in November.
“We’re having to rethink everything, 100%,” Doilney said about the operations at a time when the disease remains a threat, explaining coronavirus cases have surged in Utah since the business closed.
The business received monies through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, putting 75% toward payroll and the rest to lease payments shortly after the closure in March. Doilney, though, had already let approximately 45 workers go by the time the business received the assistance. Ten were temporarily rehired as the funds arrived, but they were later let go again as the Paycheck Protection Program monies were extinguished. There are just three people on staff in mid-July, in addition to Doilney.
The staffing levels during the summer never climb above 15 employees, he said, and the summertime sales at the restaurant usually account for up to 15% of the gross revenue each year. The summer numbers at the Doilney-owned place and scores of other businesses across sectors are not nearly as important as those in the ski season, but sales during the warm-weather months in Park City have consistently grown over time. The summer is usually seen nowadays as a time to potentially add, sometimes even amply, to the profits amassed during the ski season.
Although it appears a decision like the one made by Doilney to outright keep a business closed until the ski season is an outlier, there is continued concern about the state of the Park City-area economy at midsummer even as there has been significant progress since the shutdowns in the spring. There have seemed to be surprises to the upside in the past month as crowds returned to Main Street and elsewhere. The cancellation of a series of events like the weekly Park Silly Sunday Market and the Independence Day celebrations hurt, but some of the projected drops have been dulled by the successful launch of Main Street pedestrian days on Sundays and a desire by Park City’s target summer market to begin day-tripping again.
“We’re completely comfortable with the decision we made when we made it,” Doilney said in reaction to the recent crowds. “It didn’t make any sense to open for the summer.”
The Park City-area unemployment rate, though, remains at historically high levels, with the rate in Summit County in May initially tallied at 16.9% after a staggering 20.4% in April as the shutdown led to widespread layoffs. The rate is anticipated to continue to drop, but it is unclear how quickly the recovery will occur. If there is a significant number of businesses intending to remain closed for months, such as the one owned by Doilney, or that have opened or plan to reopen shortly with reduced staffs, the unemployment numbers could remain elevated for an extended period.
The business community at this point of the year also normally is considering plans for the ski season, including staffing and inventory levels. It is a difficult task this year with so many unknowns about the winter. The mountain resorts are readying for the first-ever socially distanced ski season, but the details are unclear, while organizers have said the Sundance Film Festival, an especially busy point of the ski season for certain sectors, will be scaled back and held, conceptually, in locations across the U.S. and in Mexico City while keeping a base in Park City.
“It’s nerve-wracking, at best, and panic inducing, at worst. It’s really scary,” Doilney said about the extended closure of the Corner Store Pub & Grill, adding, “Usually that’s a death sentence for most businesses.”
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Tourism revenue increased month over month this summer, the Park City Chamber/Bureau reported, but lodging numbers are still off 22% for December. Officials reported a recent uptick in bookings, though, pointing to a modicum of certainty after ski resorts announced their COVID-related opening policies.