President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, delivers remarks at a coronavirus update briefing March 9 in the press briefing room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

THE CORONAVIRUS THAT causes COVID-19 is now a pandemic and a national emergency, striking the travel and hospitality industries particularly hard. Major hotel conferences have been cancelled along with most other public gatherings while industry associations work to ensure whatever economic relief they can.

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, President Trump declared a national emergency in the U.S.

“The action I am taking will open up access to up to $50 billion of very important and a large amount of money for states and territories and localities in our shared fight against this disease,” Trump said.

As of March 15 there had been more than 153,000 cases of the virus reported globally and 5,735 deaths, according to the WHO. In the U.S., nearly 4,000 cases had been reported with 68 deaths. In response to the outbreak, organizers for the Hunter Hotel Conference in Atlanta postponed the conference from March 18 to 20 to an unspecified future date.

“It is the first time since our founding that we have had to make this difficult decision, and it is not something that we have taken lightly,” said Lee Hunter, COO of Hunter Hotel Advisors that conducts the conference.

AAHOA also decided to postpone its 2020 AAHOA Convention & Trade Show from April to Aug. 9 to 12.

“The travel and tourism industry is facing uncertain times as the public’s perception of the risks posed by COVID-19 become the reality for America’s hoteliers,” said Cecil Staton, AAHOA president and CEO, in a statement. “Our members are reporting that occupancy, RevPAR, and ADR are in distress. Hoteliers need this time to tend to their businesses as the travel and tourism industry adjusts to this new reality.”

Staton said the association has been in touch with the Trump administration and Congressional leadership about how the government can mitigate the impact on the hospitality and travel industries. He is particularly concerned about the effects of the administration’s recent bans on travel to and from Europe.

“The aggressive steps to protect the public from COVID-19 announced by the President will have a significant economic impact on hotel owners and the hospitality industry,” Staton said. “It was encouraging to hear that the Small Business Administration has more authority to provide capital and liquidity to businesses affected by COVID-19, and the three-month tax holiday for small and mid-sized businesses could be helpful.”

AAHOA also has been urging large hotel companies to provide some relief for hotel owners during the outbreak.

“We are impressed with some of the responses, such as Hilton Hotels hitting the pause button on the enforcement of brand standards, PIPs, and policy rollouts,” Staton and Jagruti Panwala, AAHOA’s chairwoman, said in a joint statement. “This will allow owners more flexibility in areas such as limiting hours and food and beverage service in addition to allowing them to focus on the fundamentals of hotel operations.”

As of last March, 850,000 travelers arrived in the U.S. from Europe, accounting for 29 percent of all overseas arrivals, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Those European visitors spent $3.4 billion, highlighting the need for the government to provide some assistance to the industry to mitigate the effects of Trump’s recent travel ban, said Roger Dow, USTA president and CEO.

“In taking aggressive steps to protect the public against coronavirus, the U.S. government should now consider equally aggressive steps to protect America’s workforce and employers. The public’s health is the top concern, but now the policy conversation must address the health of the economy,” Dow said. “Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel. We have and will continue to engage Congress and the administration on policy steps that are necessary to ensure that travel employers—83 percent of which are small businesses—can keep the lights on for their employees.”

Previously, Dow had issued support for Congressional approval of $8.3 billion in funding to cover the cost of responding to the outbreak.

AAHOA, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and several other travel industry groups also released a statement last week urging Americans to “make calm, rational, and fact-based decisions” about traveling inside the U.S. to avoid a trickle-down effect that could injure the economy.

“Though the headlines may be worrisome, experts continue to say the overall coronavirus risk in the U.S. remains low. At-risk groups are older individuals and those with underlying health conditions, who should take extra precautions,” the statement said. “The latest expert guidance indicates that for the overwhelming majority, it’s OK to live, work, play and travel in the U.S.”