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Pittsburgh's Hotel Industry, Too, Is Slammed By Coronavirus Shutdown

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Downtown's Distrikt Hotel is among those now shuttered during the pandemic.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic – and stay-home orders from government officials – many people are not leaving their houses, let alone booking hotel rooms. Still, the drop in occupancy rates for hotels in the Pittsburgh region has been swift and staggering.

Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The landmark Omni William Penn is also temporarily closed.

Normally in mid-March, hotels in downtown Pittsburgh would be nearly two-thirds full, said Jerad Bachar, interim CEO of tourism-promotion agency VisitPittsburgh. Instead, for the week beginning March 22, those establishments were booked at just over 7 percent – a 90 percent drop. Occupancy rates county-wide were little better, at 11.9 percent, he said, citing data from industry-research group STR.

“Hotel occupancy is at the lowest levels we’ve seen, again, in recorded history,” said Bachar, whose nonprofit group is funded primarily by the county’s hotel tax.

Allegheny County is home to nearly 150 hotels, he said. The vast majority remain open, if with reduced staffing and, in some cases, whole floors sealed off. But several in and around Downtown have temporarily closed and furloughed staff, including the historic Omni William Penn; the Fairmont Hotel; Distrikt Hotel (part of the Marriot chain); Ace Hotel in East Liberty, and the Sheraton Station Square, on the South Side.

The downturn began in mid-March, with corporate travel cutbacks. A whole slate of the conventions, stage shows, sports contests, and other events that would normally draw travelers were subsequently canceled. The David L. Lawrence Convention Center is shuttered, too, and awaits possible use as a health-care facility should the need arise.

Most people staying at hotels now, Bachar says, are first responders, airline crew people, or those self-quarantining because of prior travel or other potential exposure to the virus.

Severe downturns have hit businesses across the nation, of course, affecting most sectors of the economy, and prompting mass layoffs and furloughsMany in retail, the restaurant industry, media, and the nonprofit world wonder if they’ll be able to bounce back. But Bachar said pure survival is less of a concern among hotel owners.

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“Hotels are typically a bit more robust when it comes to funding sources,” he said. “It would be highly surprising not to see a hotel be able to come back from this, just because of the amount of resources that are typically available to them, from an ownership standpoint.”

Still, it’s going to take a while. Bachar said the dozens of events already canceled – most in March and April, but some now stretching into June – would have brought the Pittsburgh region close to $60 million in direct spending.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close non-essential business is in effect through April 30, and could last even longer. Bachar says his industry doesn’t expect the level of new coronavirus cases to begin dropping until June.

“We certainly don’t think there’s going to be any kind of robust level of recovery in the tourism industry, really, until the middle of summer,” he said.