The visitors bureau for Williamson County is encouraging residents and visitors to wear a mask, arguing that it’s the best way to support the county’s struggling hospitality industry. 

On Monday, Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson issued an executive order requiring people in the county to wear a mask in public, and Visit Franklin, the county’s visitors bureau, praised the decision.

“Medical research shows that wearing a mask is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that’s important, not just for the health of our local community, but also because travel research indicates that it is a major factor in the decision making process of travelers now,” Visit Franklin CEO Ellie Westman Chin said, according to a press release.

The tourism industry in Williamson County, which contributed nearly $480 million to the local economy in 2018, has taken an enormous hit during the coronavirus pandemic. Hotel occupancy bottomed out at about 15% in April, but has since climbed steadily. Occupancy reach 26% in May. For the week of June 21, occupancy numbers had risen to 40%. 

While those numbers have risen significantly over the last several months, they are still much lower than a normal year when hotel occupancy can be 75% or higher in the summer. 

“I never thought I would celebrate a 30% occupancy rate,” Westman Chin said. “Usually, if we hit that something is very wrong and we need to fix it.”

Westman Chin said Visit Franklin is focusing on three types of visitors as it works to support the hospitality industry in Williamson County. 

She said about a third of potential visitors were eager to travel as soon as stay-at-home orders were lifted. That group is largely responsible for the rebound in tourism numbers over the last several months. 

An equally large group is interested in traveling, but acts much more cautiously. Those visitors will be critical for an economic recovery, Westman Chin said, and wearing masks could go a long way towards convincing them to visit the county.

“The third that's going to dip their toe in, they want to go where they feel it is safe," she said. “If we're cleaning and wearing our masks, they're going to feel a little bit more safe than maybe a community that's not doing that at all.”

A third group of about the same size likely won’t travel at all until there is an effective treatment or vaccine or a significant decline in the number of COVID-19 cases. 

The number of people visiting Williamson County increased during a period when the number of active COVID-19 cases was falling. Over the last several weeks, the number of active cases and hospitalizations has started to increase. It’s not totally clear what that means for the local tourism industry.

"Hopefully, we're not going to see a decrease,” Westman Chin said. “I think people that were maybe looking forward to traveling or planning some trips have decided, maybe I'm going to wait a little bit longer because of these spikes." 

In March, April and May, many hotels, restaurants and music venues received funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal initiative aimed at keeping workers employed during the pandemic.

For many businesses, those funds, covering about two and a half months of payroll, are now exhausted, and they face the prospect of staying financially stable with far fewer customers than previous years. 

Despite the challenge, Westman Chin said Williamson County may be well positioned to weather the storm. The county is within driving distance for many visitors, offers plenty of outdoor activities and smaller crowds than bustling urban centers. She said that relative peace and quiet could be attractive to many people who feel exhausted after the last few months.

“I still think we're going to see a lot of people come in the fall," she said.

"I think what we are seeing is that travelers are looking closer than ever at states that are spiking versus states that are decreasing. I'm hoping with the governor's executive order, that gave counties the ability to implement the mask mandates, that we're going to see our cases decrease. If we do, I think that's going to serve us well in the fall.”

However, she adds one big caveat. That success depends on residents, visitors and businesses taking steps to limit the spread of the virus. She says wearing a mask is probably the single most important action anyone can take to help the tourism economy recover. 

A recent survey conducted by Visit Franklin, shows that many Williamson County residents are already wearing masks. About two thirds of the 2,400 people who responded to the survey said they always wear a mask in public and nearly 80% reported wearing a mask in indoor public spaces.

“I don't want to go back to phase two. I don't want us to have to close again," she said. "What we are asking is please wear a mask so we don't have to close again. Please wear a mask so people can get their jobs back and go back to work.”

Visitors aren’t off the hook either. Visit Franklin is offering free Franklin-branded masks to any tourists who forgot to bring one on vacation. 

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