COVID-19 puts damper on tourist activities and revenue for long weekend

The Butterfly, a popular attraction at Dollywood Splash Country. (Photo: Dollywood)
The Butterfly, a popular attraction at Dollywood Splash Country. (Photo: Dollywood)

Memorial Day weekend normally kicks off Tennessee’s summer tourist season, but given the COVID-19 pandemic, many  entertainment facilities will remain postponed until further notice, putting a damper on an otherwise big weekend for visitor activity.

Gov. Bill Lee lifted restrictions May 15 for large attractions, such as amusement parks, waterparks, theaters and museums. With most summer festivals either postponed or canceled, remaining attractions across Tennessee are working  to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. Davidson, Shelby, Knox, Hamilton, Madison and Sullivan County will follow their own reopening plan, but entertainment facilities elsewhere can open as soon as management feels ready. 

Pete Owen, vice president of marketing and public relations for Dollywood, said an opening date for the park has not been set. The theme park suspended operations in April while entering “hibernation mode,” cutting pay of active employees and furloughing others.

Officials won’t share details of how they will maintain social distancing guidelines until they announce their opening, with Owen saying  “until then it is not prudent to do so.” They will not be open for the Memorial Day weekend, but if the Pigeon Forge theme park opens soon, it may be one of the first theme parks to open in the U.S.

What’s open/what’s not: Nashville Shores (Nashville): No opening date but will unveil a new thrill ride described as a six-story-tall raft ride; The Tennessee Aquarium (Chattanooga): Plans to reopen in late June. Cheekwood Estate & Gardens (Nashville): Reopens its 55-acre garden Friday while only accepting advance ticket reservations in order to maintain safe capacity. Masks are strongly encouraged. With fountains and vending machines being blocked, families are asked to bring their own food and water. Graceland (Memphis): Reopened Thursday but is limiting visitor numbers.

Tennessee families and tourists aren’t the only ones frustrated by closures: In 2018, tourism accounted for more than 189,000 jobs in the state and $1.81  billion in state and local tax revenues. The effects on the pandemic and subsequent closures won’t be tallied until 2021 but in Nashville alone, hotel revenue in April was down 89% from the same period in 2019.

All Tennessee state parks have reopened to the public, including most park facilities. This includes access to trails, boat ramps, marinas, golf courses, and other outdoor recreation opportunities, according to the Tennessee State Parks website. Playgrounds may be open but social distancing is still encouraged and information will be posted about cleaning standards. 

Parks may experience greater than normal traffic due to the long holiday weekend.  Since parks remain one of the few recreational  facilities open, visitors can expect park staff and rangers to  be patrolling state and city-owned parks to monitor social distancing. 

Richel Albright, communications director for the city of Chattanooga, said if crowds in parks there become too large, the city has the option to close the parks. 

Cheekwood in Bloom, ©Caitlin Harris PhotographyThe Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) is largely encouraging park-goers to visit parks close to home and visit early in case plans need adjustment. Spokesperson Kim Schofinski said state parks can limit access to areas if capacity is reached, and all park-hosted programming is limited to small groups while visitors are encouraged to have groups of 10 or less.

Although most military public events have been canceled, the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell will be holding a series of digital events to honor military personnel, including the yearly wreath laying ceremony. Officials with the base will be posting the Memorial Day Ceremony on their Facebook page

For families with restless children, the YMCA’s reopening of indoor pools and other summer activities remains an excellent option, although outdoor pools won’t open until mid-June. The Y currently has centers open in Brentwood, Clarksville, Franklin, Maryland Farms, North Rutherford, Robertson County and Sumner County, with Davidson County centers remaining closed. Group activities will resume at half capacity and will only increase according to state guidance. Previously membership dues were waived for May while those visiting were charged fees at 50 percent reductions, but June membership dues will be charged in full for open facilities. Operating hours will be reduced on Memorial Day. 

Community recreation centers gradually reopened according to their county’s guidelines but are largely limiting occupant capacity according to social distancing requirements. For further information, check your county’s website.