In the Pocono region, the question is ‘Will tourists return?’

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//July 7, 2020

In the Pocono region, the question is ‘Will tourists return?’

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//July 7, 2020

Businesses in Monroe, Schuylkill and Carbon counties have shown grit, determination and resolve in finding ways to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

Whether forced to close or modify how they do business, employers have adapted to months of mandatory shutdowns, severely reduced tourism in a region that depends heavily upon it, and employee fears about returning to work over the continued specter of COVID-19.

“Overnight trillions of dollars of wealth has disappeared, and that has to trickle down somewhere. We haven’t gone through anything like this, and we have nothing to base it on,” said Christopher Barrett, Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau president and CEO in Stroudsburg.

Pennsylvania recently released its May unemployment figures. At 13.1 percent, unemployment is slightly down from April, but dramatically higher than the 3.8 percent record posted in April 2019. 

Things were looking good on New Year’s Day. January ushered in historically low unemployment, more jobs than usually available to job seekers and high expectations for a strong economy in 2020. 

“Occupancies in hotels were up, room rates were up, visitation was up and had been up in double digits over the past four years,” Barrett said.

Six months later, coronavirus risks continue to bring employee unease and anxiety over returning to the workplace. Pocono Mountains are made up of communities in Carbon, Monroe, Pike and Wayne counties, attracting 29 million guests per year and generating a whopping $4.2 billion in income.

From Kalahari to Great Wolf Lodge and Camelbeach Mountain Waterpark, tourism, hospitality and related services are major drivers of the Pocono Mountain area’s economy and workforce. In the four county region about 65 percent of labor income comes from the entertainment and hospitality sectors.  

“We didn’t see any clouds on the horizon before this hit,” Barrett said.

Dependent upon visitors and tourism, coronavirus fears bring even more uncertainty, according to Charles Leonard, executive director of Pocono Mountains Economic Development Corporation in Stroudsburg, Monroe County.

The Poconos, which includes rolling mountains and scenic hillside vistas, is also the third largest Airbnb market in the commonwealth. “There’s Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and then us,” Leonard said. He predicts a surge in vacation home real estate sales for this region that is in striking distance to New York and northern New Jersey. 

Poconos communities have experienced second-home sales bumps during other “hardship” times and most recently many second homeowners flocked to communities early during the pandemic to escape virus hotspots in their primary home states.

“We’ll see that once again,” Leonard said. “Not as rapid as in the 1990s but it looks like we’ll have a new influx preliminarily, which would be a boost for the home building industry.”

Ready to restart

In the meantime business owners and managers are trying to figure out how to stay open and bring back furloughed or laid off employees. 

“The key to the economy is getting through the spreading phase and [creating] some kind of equilibrium,” Leonard said.

Several companies took extraordinary measures to create safe work environments and make sure their employees felt comfortable returning to work. From extra cleaning to providing personal protective equipment (PPE) some companies restricted the number of employees on site at any given time, or when possible moved portions of their operations outdoors to take advantage of the fair summer weather.

“Employers made some sacrifices, or set up processes outdoors” which was unique, he said.

Barrett said the three major water parks, ordinarily market share competitors, came together and created joint safety and mitigation plans to benefit everyone.

“It was great to see three competitors do this and continue to cooperate with each other,” Barrett said.

Still, Barrett expects unemployment to remain “stubbornly high for the next couple of months” as visitors decide the level of health risk they are willing to take in their leisure activities.


Based upon early predictions he suggested pent up demand from spring stay at home orders will be good for the Poconos market. 

“They won’t fly domestically, internationally or cruise [this year]. People will travel here because they know us and feel safe,” Barrett said.

Frank Zukas, president of Schuylkill Economic Development Corporation in Pottsville, said unemployment was at an all time low prior to Covid-19 in the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors.

“There are quite a number of projects in the works for expansions and new construction” before the mandatory shutdown forced them to a standstill, Zukas said.

With the region moving to green phases those projects, along with some new ones, have picked up and are back on track. Zukas said many of the Schuylkill’s manufacturing and logistics operations remained open because they were essential businesses. 

“Those companies [employ] hundreds of people, and to that extent I think we weathered the storm pretty Okay,” he said. “As you drop down to small businesses, it has been devastating.”

Schuylkill’s downtowns built around banking, legal and engineering services also seemed to fare better than those heavily reliant upon personal services, restaurants or food.

Small towns are particularly vulnerable when eateries and hardware stores go out of business because it forces residents out of their local areas to seek basic services, increasing their risk of exposure to infection, Zukas said. 

“It’s interrupted the retail sector, but food and beverage have been hardest hit,” Zukas said.

Some smaller shops inside the Fairlane Village Mall announced closures, according to Zukas. The shopping center, located on Route 61 just outside of Pottsville, is anchored by Boscov’s, Kohl’s, and Michaels an arts and crafts retail store.

Outdoor assets

While many of Carbon County’s assets are outdoors, it has not escaped the economic hammer felt by its neighbors, said Kathy Henderson, director of economic development for Carbon Chamber and Economic Development in Lehighton.

The Lehigh Gorge State Park, D&L Trail, Beltzville State Park and white water excursions on the Lehigh River as well as three ski areas make Carbon County part of a four-season tourist destination for those coming from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia markets – all previous Covid-19 hotspots.

“The outdoors is open but you were encouraged to use masks and social distancing,” Henderson said. “The trail heads were packed with cars, some from our area and some with out-of-state plates.”

She said residents took notice, and the risk of infection because of an influx of those from out of town was worrisome to many.

While many restaurants and others deemed non-essential have been close for roughly four months, one start-up business stood out. The Hofford Mill in Weissport, a restaurant, coffee shop, event center, hostel and axe throwing venue, had just opened when coronavirus shut it down. Because of an abundance of food ingredient supplies like flour and sugar, the restaurant pivoted to selling bulk items in 50-pound bags, which would normally be used on site.

“All of those items were available to purchase because you could not find them. They did amazingly well,” Henderson said.

Ordering and curbside pickup helped The Hofford take advantage of a bad situation to keep cash flow positive.

The quick pivot move was creative – and profitable.

“They were able to gauge what people were looking for by what was not available at stores,” she said.