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One year after Charleston’s shutdown, local business and civic leaders weigh in on what have we learned from the pandemic

One year after Charleston’s shutdown, local business and civic leaders weigh in on what have we learned from the pandemic
March 2021

Leaders in hospitality, tourism, business, the arts, philanthropy, and local government reflect on the past year, helping us better understand where things stand—and where we might go from here.

The city’s streetscapes (left, King Street after March 17, 2020; right, East Bay, back to almost normal in January) reflect the dramatic effects of the pandemic shutdown.

Driving down East Bay Street on a Friday evening in late January, it’s hard to believe the city of Charleston is under a state of emergency. Traffic rolls along steadily, people are out and about, the Harris Teeter parking lot is full, and Magnolias restaurant appears to be in full bloom. But with the coronavirus still on the loose, a local state of emergency ordinance remains in effect, at least until March 12, which is 361 days after Mayor John Tecklenburg first declared it.

Charleston today looks a lot different than it did one year ago when March came in like an untamed, pandemic-roaring lion. In the wake of the mayor’s stay-at-home order (issued last March 24), King, Broad, and Meeting streets—typically the busiest thoroughfares—looked like a post-rapture scene from a B movie, devoid of people and cars. We’ve acclimated to a new abnormal over the past year, and the city, while still mandating masks and encouraging social distancing, is coming back to life, despite a significant loss of life.

According to the State Department of Health and Environmental Control, one in 13 people in Charleston County has been infected by COVID-19, and as of this writing, 426 of our neighbors have died (that number climbs to 754 if including Berkeley and Dorchester counties). Just as the virus itself has demonstrated the ability to attack many different bodily organs and systems, it has similarly impacted nearly every aspect of our community—from schools, churches, and synagogues to businesses, restaurants, and hotels to homeless shelters, libraries, and, certainly, hospitals. Our hearts break for those who have lost loved ones or suffered physically, and yet even those who have been fortunate enough to carry on have all felt pandemic-related effects in some way.

Now that vaccines are being rolled out, even as new strains pop up, how is Charleston faring one year after shutdown? What has the last year revealed about our community’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and how might the Lowcountry’s future be changed by this experience? Leaders in hospitality, tourism, business, the arts, philanthropy, and local government reflect on the past year, helping us better understand where things stand—and where we might go from here.

“Sense of Community Never Stronger”

“Having to lay off 940 people is a day I’ll never forget,” says Steve Palmer, veteran restaurateur and managing partner of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, of March 17 last year. The tents from Charleston Wine + Food were still being dismantled, where just a few days earlier, Palmer’s chefs were among those feeding thousands of guests milling around, eating, drinking, festing, and feasting like there was no tomorrow, or certainly no tomorrow like the one they faced.

“We were completely blindsided,” says Palmer, whose local establishments include Oak Steakhouse, Indaco, O-Ku, The Macintosh, The Cedar Room, and The Cocktail Club. “I’ve been in the business long enough that I’ve managed through economic downturns, but there was no playbook for this.” Read more ...

“Artists Are Second Responders”

Artists, dancers, and actors generally possess a certain unflappability, because, as they say, despite nerves, illness, bleak finances, or backstage drama, “the show must go on.” But COVID-19 had other plans. As the realities of the shutdown fell like a heavy curtain call, stage fright suddenly took on a new meaning. Spoleto Festival USA canceled its extensive 17-day program for the first time ever. Charleston Stage, the Footlight Players, PURE Theatre, and others went dark. Museums and galleries closed. YouTube became the only concert stage. Talk about improv. And all when we needed art and inspiration the most.

Nonprofits across the region suffered symptoms from the COVID shutdown, but according to a report by Together SC and the College of Charleston’s Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities, arts organizations were hurt the most severely. Survey responses from 566 charitable organizations across the state revealed that while every nonprofit faced pandemic-related hurdles, Lowcountry arts organizations, which bring in $250 million in annual revenue, were hit on every front. They topped the list in terms of loss of overall revenue, loss of earned revenue (i.e. ticket sales), staff layoffs, and loss of foundation funding. Read more...

“The Pivot Dance”

In its 115 years in business, Croghan’s Jewel Box has never closed its doors for more than a few days at a time—except after a major hurricane. Until March 16, 2020. “We came roaring up to March after a hugely successful 2019. It seemed there were more attendants than ever at SEWE and Charleston Wine + Food, and our front door was getting a workout,” says Rhett Outten, who, along with her sister and two nieces, runs the fourth-generation King Street stalwart. When the shutdown occurred, the Croghan’s team thought they might be closed for two weeks and immediately started strategizing.

“Our goal was to keep all of our 25 employees employed,” recalls Outten. Fortunately, as a legacy business they own their building and had some cash reserves on hand. The Croghan’s team had already invested in a digital footprint, embellished with a solid social media following, so they capitalized on those assets to connect with their customer base. To enhance engagement, they launched a series of clever “Deal of the Day” sales—all emeralds were 15 percent off on St. Patrick’s Day, for example. “Then it became clear that this closure wasn’t going to be just two weeks, but a long while. Things got scary,” Outten says. So much for their “Blue Skies Ahead” special (discounts on all aquamarines). Instead of pushing jewelry sales, they focused on expressing gratitude to their customers and the community, handwriting notes and sharing encouraging messages on social media. Read More...

“We Are Who We Said”

A $1 billion loss: that’s the estimated skid mark left after Charleston’s hospitality and tourism industry came to a screeching halt last spring, and a figure that only represents losses from mid-March 2020 through mid-May, according to the most recent report from College of Charleston’s Office of Tourism Analysis.

Before COVID-19, the greater Charleston region welcomed seven million visitors a year, but after airports and hotels closed, when cruise ships, restaurants, house tours, and beaches were suddenly off-limits, the engine that generates an $8 billion regional economic impact suddenly went kaput. Hotel occupancy plummeted from 74 percent in 2019 to 45 percent in 2020, and because most tourism spending is generated by overnight visitors, according to Perrin Lawson, deputy director of Explore Charleston, that decrease ultimately impacts every other business that depends to some degree on visitor spending, including the City of Charleston’s budget. Read More...

“We’ve Been Discovered”

Meanwhile, as hotels sat empty for much of last year, the private home market went gangbusters. Charleston’s residential real estate sector was one big economic bright spot in the shadow of COVID-19. “We didn’t see this uptick coming at all. In fact, we were anxious this time last year, and in March, we cut our business expenses,” says Randy Walker, president of Dunes Properties, a real estate brokerage firm that also manages coastal vacation rentals. “It was scary for us, especially when they closed the beaches. We lost $750,000 in vacation rental revenue.” And then a huge influx of people from locked-down metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Midwest started flocking to Charleston. “We were completely shocked. We had no idea that an exodus from the cities was coming,” Walker says.

Dunes Properties closed more than $415 million in residential sales in 2020, setting a 31-year company record, and exceeding 2017’s previous record of $320 million by 30 percent. They were far from alone in exceeding their sales expectations. Across Greater Charleston, residential real estate closings were up by 31 percent, with median home sales prices up by 14.4 percent. The biggest concern now is lack of inventory, all thanks to pandemic-related shifts in virtual schooling for families with children and new norms of remote working for adults. Read more...

“A Turning Point”

Mayor John Tecklenburg was barely three months into his second term when the pandemic hit. As he reflects on an unprecedented year, one in which the city had already embarked on updating its Comprehensive Plan and major flooding-related infrastructure projects, the mayor is encouraged to find the city of Charleston “in a good spot, compared to other jurisdictions that have not fared as well,” says Tecklenburg, who first issued stay-at-home orders on March 24. He believes his more proactive approach to mask mandates and following CDC guidelines has been “validated,” yet recovery remains contingent on “sticking with” precautions a bit longer to keep infection numbers down. “Even though vaccines are here and the clearing’s ahead, we are not out of the woods,” Tecklenburg cautions.

COVID dealt a $40 million loss to the city’s 2020 budget, with a projected $25 million loss for 2021, which has required the mayor and city council to “operate lean and mean,” he says. The “incredible budget balancing act” has entailed borrowing against cash reserves, cost cutting, hiring freezes, and deferring some projects to avoid having to lay off any municipal workforce. “You could argue the pandemic has revealed we are too reliant on hospitality taxes, but the city had already been diversifying our income streams, and has dealt with having our knees cut out from under us on the tourism side,” Tecklenburg says. “We expect our economy to recover nicely, and I believe we’ll be better for it in the long run.” Read more...



Photographs by Kevin Ruck; F11 Photo; Kristi Blokhin & Melinda Smith Monk; Sarah Westmoreland; Aleece Sophia; Mira Adwell