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The Statehouse News Bureau provides educational, comprehensive coverage of legislation, elections, issues and other activities surrounding the Statehouse to Ohio's public radio and television stations.

Ohio Tourism Takes A Big Hit From COVID-19 Shutdowns

[Joe Hendrickson / Shutterstock]

This week zoos, museums and amusement and water parks in Ohio could reopen under specific guidelines, just in time for their summertime prime-time visitor seasons. But the months of shutdown and the limits on operations — plus safety concerns from consumers — are all having a big impact on communities that rely on tourism dollars. 

The roller coasters at Cedar Point are operating now, but the park is opening a month and a half late and on a limited basis due to social distancing and limits on attendance.

Kalahari, Sandusky [Kalahari Resorts]

The same is true with the indoor water park down the street, Kalahari, which reopened this week.

Last May, Kalahari brought in more than $660,000 in lodging taxes alone and nearly $2.5 million in sales taxes. This year, both numbers were zero.

“It’s interesting that so many people, about 11 million come here every year to go to Kalahari Resorts, Cedar Point, Castaway Bay, Great Wolf Lodge, the Sandusky Speedway, Kelley’s Island and Put-in-Bay and we just have a ton of things to do. We are really lucky," said Matt Old, a Republican Erie County commissioner.

Old said he’s anticipating a 20 percent reduction in sales tax because of the shutdown.

Matt Old, Erie County Commissioner [Jo Ingles / Statehouse News Bureau]

“We think this year it’s going to be a total of around $5 million to just Erie County’s general fund. That’s not talking about the whole economic impact throughout the whole region. That will be substantially larger," Old said.

When restaurants and bars were opening up last month but event centers like Kalahari couldn’t, the resort went to court, saying the state lacked legal authority to keep those venues closed.

Curt Hartman, one of the attorneys representing entertainment venues that sued the state, said closures of some has affected nearly all of them.

“We’re dealing with vendors. We are dealing with opportunities for sales to occur and there’s the ripple effect that happens," Hartman said. "When you have one event, you are looking at hotels, you are looking at convenience stores, supply stores and stuff like that and it all makes an impact on the communities and in the Kalahari case up in Erie County, that was one of the major employers throughout the whole region."

The day after the lawsuit was filed, the state announced the dates and conditions for those venues to open, and a judge ruled that could happen immediately. 

But with deliberately lowered attendance and lingering concerns about coronavirus, Erie County’s leaders worry that will mean gaping holes in the county and Sandusky city budgets that will have to be filled eventually. The same is true in Warren County, in southwestern Ohio, home to Kings Island, the other Ohio amusement park owned by Cedar Point parent company Cedar Fair. Even in areas where tourism isn’t the major driver for the economy, like Columbus, local leaders still expect to take a hit.

But Democratic Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady said the cost of public health needs to be considered too.

John O'Grady, Franklin County Commissioner [Jo Ingles / Statehouse News Bureau]

“The city of Columbus hasn’t opened Berliner Park, which is a major revenue source for the city of Columbus. That being said, packing all of those families into a place like Berliner Park to have a big softball tournament maybe isn’t the greatest idea right now," O'Grady said.

Franklin County is also losing money from college and high school sports, O’Grady said. The county has received some federal funds, and has a reserve so it hasn’t had to lay off employees. But events like the Memorial Tournament next month and Ohio State football games have been scaled back, which also will have a financial impact.

And last month the Ohio State Fair – which brings in nearly a million visitors to Columbus for nearly two weeks every summer – was canceled for the first time since World War II. This week, Interim Ohio Department of Health Director Lance Himes signed an order to allow county fairs to go on, with limitations. But many fairs have already decided to take this year off.

Copyright 2020 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.