For three months, the coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on tourism in the Coachella Valley during high season, a major blow for a region dependent on the hospitality industry.

But that changed Friday when Riverside County health officials began allowing more businesses to reopen or expand from limited operations, spurring the valley’s flagship industry to in effect restart where it left off, with modifications aimed at reducing the spread of the virus.

Businesses cleared to resume operations include hotels, motels and inns, which were previously only allowed to cater to essential workers or others for coronavirus-related reasons, along with bars, gyms, movie theaters and daycare operations.

Lodging businesses comprise the bedrock of the broader hospitality industry, which typically employs nearly 55,000 people annually in the Coachella Valley — or one in four workers — while providing cities valley-wide with millions in coveted tax dollars.

Hilton Palm Springs is among the local lodging establishments that reopened Friday to nonessential travelers, and all 257 of its rooms were spoken for going into the weekend, according to the hotel’s vice president, Aftab Dada.

“The demand for reservations since earlier this week when we made the announcement that we will be open this Friday for leisure travelers has been off the charts,” he told City News Service. “I’ve been running this property for 30 plus years, and I’ve never seen so much demand.”

Dada, who is also the chairman of the Palm Springs Hospitality Association, estimates about 30% of the region’s hotels, motels and inns will reopen through the weekend, and by July 4, he expects that number to get closer to 75%.

Airbnb this week listed the Palm Springs area as among the top 10 trending travel destinations in the United States, based on internet searches by travelers seeking short-term rentals.

Palm Springs is banking on its close proximity to coastal cities in Southern California as a selling point for would-be visitors. The Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism this week unleashed an advertising campaign, “Hello, Palm Springs,” which targets travelers looking for a drivable getaway boasting plenty of open space.

“One of the things we know is people are looking to travel to places they can drive to, where they can be outside and that they believe are taking safety precautions seriously,” Mayor Geoff Kors told CNS. “Palm Springs is all of that.”

Local tourism came to a halt in March following the start of stay-at-home orders enacted to stymie the spread of the coronavirus. Many Coachella Valley locals work in tourism-dependent industries and depend on the money they make between the months of January and May, when snowbirds traditionally flock to the desert.

The first large event to be canceled at the start of the pandemic in March was the BNP Paribas Open Tennis Tournament, and shortly after, the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals, which were set for April, were called off.

Coachella typically brings upward of 250,000 fans over two weekends to the Empire Polo Club in Indio, a major boon for the Coachella Valley as a whole.

Early estimates peg COVID-19 costing the Coachella Valley nearly $3.5 billion in lost revenue due in large part to the shortened tourism season, according to the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. That’s a loss of 57% compared to 2019, when visitor spending accounted for more than $5.9 billion, according to an economic impact study by Tourism Economics citied by local tourism officials.

The losses also eliminated 24,000 jobs in the hospitality sector, officials said.

Tourism previously brought the valley’s nine cities $181 million in 2019, the bureau reported. Some of those cities have already signaled that major revenue deficiencies are spurring drastic cost-cutting measures.

Layoff notices were issued last week for 29 city employees in Palm Springs, the result of a projected $76 million budget shortfall estimated through next fiscal year due in part to diminished tourism-related taxes.

Reopening the economy does not represent a complete reversal of mandates aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus, which as of Friday afternoon had infected more than 10,000 Riverside County residents, and killed more than 380.

Cities across the Coachella Valley are still requiring face coverings to be worn in most public settings, along with social distancing protocols and other requirements.

At the Hilton Palm Springs, as well as other businesses and eateries across the valley, Dada said the “new normal” is spurring restaurants to use digital or one-use paper menus; removal of tables and bar stools to dissuade people from congregating in close quarters; and increased sanitizing regimens. Hand sanitizer stations abound, and employees use personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks.

“The game has completely changed,” he said. “Safety and cleanliness are the number one priority. Everything else is secondary.”

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