Healdsburg businesses brace for hit to tourism from Wine Country shutdown
Wine glass place settings sat empty on high-top tables at the darkened JCB Tasting Salon overlooking the Healdsburg Plaza Wednesday, as residents and businesses hunkered down on the first day of Sonoma County's public health emergency order to stay home other than running essential errands.
The manicured grass public square functions as the heartbeat of the Wine Country destination and is normally humming with activity. But by late morning, the usual lunch crowd had yet to arrive and, with the exception of a few people who left home searching for fresh air, the area was deserted.
“I've never seen it quite so quiet. And, imagine that, I got a parking spot right on the plaza and at this hour,” said resident Joe Gellura, 81, who pulled up in his Toyota sedan to go for a walk with Enzo, his golden retriever. “All of my volunteer activities have been canceled until further notice, so I think this could be it for a while.”
That stark reality for Healdsburg's tourism-driven economy is staring many local business owners square in the face. As travelers cancel or at least postpone plans to visit, the city often associated with winery tasting rooms and high-end hotels — both of which draw many people from around the world — could see some of the region's steepest challenges from the county shutdown tied to spread of the coronavirus.
Reservations have quickly evaporated at the Duchamp Hotel just south of the plaza. The small, boutique inn has plans to expand from its six rooms to 20, but may now have to put the project on hold after needing to rebook several sold-out weekends and seeing its last guest depart Wednesday.
“It's an interesting time and the economic impact is significant for the entire industry,” said Tom Nelson, the Duchamp's vice president of operations. “Who knows what the future holds? I don't know what next week looks like.”
Contributing to fears among local businesses is the uncertainty over how long the financial hit may last, said Tallia Hart, CEO of Healdsburg's Chamber of Commerce. With a local economy that is as much as 70% dependent on visitors — and having already been forced to overcome repeat disaster events, including recent fires and floods — the situation is unsettling for everyone, she said.
“These are unprecedented times. A pandemic is not something that businesses have gone through before. People don't understand how to deal with that,” Hart said. “It's all part of an economic ecosystem where one thing impacts another, and the problem is that with when one thing gets hit, there's also another business behind it that suffers because everybody works together.”
The repeat emergencies have for three years in a row cut revenue at Dragonfly Farm, which provides floral arrangements for weddings and other large events. But cancellations from the coronavirus already have started to stack up, said co-owner Carlisle Degischer, as have a variety of winery bookings because of the restriction on gatherings larger than 10 people.
“It's challenging times for everybody. We were just coming out of dark times,” said Degischer, who has begun exploring ways to diversify the business, such as home gardening kits that she delivers.
The losses aren't reserved to tourism-focused ventures.
Skip Brand, owner of Healdsburg Running Co. with his wife, Holly, turned the key on the shop door a little before noon Wednesday to start work on an online sales portal to their website. Also, since building a strong clientele and social group of local runners over the past five years, he had a list of calls to return to customers who left messages requesting new shoes be shipped their way.
“That community aspect will now have to be virtual,” Brand said. “Nothing replaces face to face, but we have to do our best.”
Joanna Corro and Jeffery Tilton Jr., co-founders of Wash & Brushup Co. hair salon, spent the morning rescheduling appointments for after April 7, when they plan to reopen their business of seven years. They were cautiously optimistic they wouldn't have to make the same calls three weeks from now.
“I'm just being hopeful,” Corro said. “That's all we have.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.
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