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Officials: Effects of new coronavirus on local tourism limited

NATCHEZ — March and April are traditionally the biggest travel and tourism months for Natchez and so far the pandemic spread of COVID-19 is having a limited impact on the tourism season, local tourism professionals said.

Spring Pilgrimage, which began with a Thursday night tableaux at Natchez City Auditorium, is going forward as planned, promoters said.

Tourism professionals, however, said they are constantly monitoring COVID-19 developments through the Mississippi Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will adjust plans as necessary.

Jennifer Ogden Combs, executive director at Visit Natchez and Natchez Convention Promotion Commission, said the Visit Natchez and NCPC are both working with the Mississippi Tourism Association, Visit Mississippi, the Mississippi Development Authority, the Mississippi Department of Health as well as national partners such as the U.S. Travel Association and the CDC.

“I understand Pilgrimage plans are continuing to go forward, but I know they are monitoring it as well,” Combs said. “We are continually monitoring the situation, because it is ever evolving. It is constantly changing so we are working closely with those organizations and partners. The most important thing to us is certainly the public health, the health and safety of our city’s residents and our visitors both.”

COVID-19 has been confirmed in six patients in Mississippi, three from Forrest County and one from LeFlore County and two Mississippi locations that have not yet been identified, MDH announced in a Friday afternoon press conference. In Louisiana, officials have confirmed 36 cases of the virus, most in Orleans Parish.

Cruise lines

American Cruise Lines is suspending dockings at Natchez for the week of March 16-20, Combs said Saturday morning.

“We’ve had an update from American Cruise Lines to let us know there will be no dockings of American Cruise Lines’ vessels here this coming week March 16-20,” said Jennifer Ogden Combs, executive director of Visit Natchez and the Natchez Convention and Promotion Commission. “According to … their PR representative, they have not had any cases but their reservations for this week have declined so they won’t sail.”

Cancelations and closings

Combs said she only knows of a few closings and cancelations of events in Natchez so far due to COVID-19

“The only things we have heard in terms of any closings is what MDAH issued yesterday that their sites are closing, so Grand Village will be closing for visitors, and also I understand the Natchez Historic Photographs at Stratton Chapel will be closing for visitors as of Monday until further notice.”

Also on Friday, the Natchez Little Theatre announced it was canceling planned performances of “Steel Magnolias.”

Performances had been scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Theatre Director Chris Borum said productions of “Steel Magnolias” had been scheduled to open Friday evening and show every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through April 11 for the month of Spring Pilgrimage.

Borum said the theatre is following the recommendations of the Natchez COVID-19 Task Force and would re-evaluate whether to host later shows weekend by weekend.

“We are in the process of emailing those who have already purchased tickets,” Borum said, adding those who purchased tickets may either use their purchase to attend a later show or be reimbursed via PayPal.

Convention cancelations

Walter Tipton, director of the Natchez Convention Center, said he has had a few conferences cancel in recent days because of the concerns about COVID-19.

“I’m sure it will have an impact on the business community here,” Tipton said. “It is having a significant negative economic impact on our community.”

One group that canceled was a three-state Key Club conference scheduled for next week, Tipton said.

“Of course those are supported by school systems and then various community school systems have through their boards put restrictions on student travel, which when they do that of course kills the conference,” Tipton said.

Tour cancelations

Likewise, Jeremy Houston of Miss-Lou Heritage Group & Tours, which conducts tours of historic African American sites in Natchez and the Miss-Lou, said he has had several tours canceled in recent days due to COVID-19.

Houston said he has had at least seven tours canceled for the months of March and April and only has one scheduled tour remaining on his calendar.

One group called him and canceled recently, Houston said.

“Then it was like an avalanche,” Houston said. “They were first, then a group from Jackson called and said they were canceling theirs for April and then a group from Arkansas that I had scheduled for March 25, they canceled. ‘We are not coming because of coronavirus,’ they said. I was like, ‘God dog! When it rains it pours. I’ve done got hit hard.”

Lost revenue

Tipton and Houston both said they understand the necessity for people to cancel events, but it will still be an economic hit.

Tipton said he and his staff are taking measures to lessen the impact.

“We are communicating to our guests what our policies are as far as cleanliness and we’re reinforcing that in fact we clean and disinfect rooms to a standard and we are communicating that to our guests,” Tipton said. “Our immediate focus is that we have Gideons from around the state here now, and we are hoping that they go back to their communities and say they’ve been to a conference here and that we have high standards for cleanliness and prevention of any types of virus or flu.”

In the meantime, Tipton said he is ramping up marketing efforts to try to fill recent vacancies.

“As a short-term vacancy comes up, we will definitely be ramping our marketing to the leisure travel and short-term bookings,” Tipton said. “I hope that this situation gets resolved in the short run because not only is this having an immediate impact, March and April are normally our two highest travel months, it will also have longterm implications, too.”

Meanwhile, Houston said he has recently released a coloring book available for sale on Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com that he hopes will help make up some of his lost revenue.

“It is called ‘Heritage in Color,’ and children can color different African Americans from Natchez,” Houston said. “It is available now on Amazon ($11) for the children to be able to color some Natchez heroes.”

Figures depicted in the illustrations include Richard Wright, Papa George Lightfoot, Marie Selika Williams (the first black person to ever sing before a president in 1878) who was born in Natchez and Sadie V. Thompson, among others.

“Proceeds benefit the Miss-Lou Heritage Group and Tours to continue to make educational materials to educate locals, tourists, international guests, anybody in Natchez or from Natchez or who wants to have a piece of Natchez,” Houston said. “The proceeds go to keep that going, to keep things going it does cost money and we want to keep this going. It will be available locally (in various Natchez antebellum houses) at the end of March.”

Houston said he hopes the loss of tourism is worth the potential of saving lives.

“Before we put any Natchez people at risk, it is probably better for them to do that (cancel tours), because you don’t know how the virus is spreading,” Houston said. “It is just better for us to be safe than sorry. With the cancelations of the NBA and Major League Baseball and stuff like that we don’t need anybody being careless and spreading this stuff around, so in a way I understand but I also understand that just because of the coronavirus, the bills aren’t going to stop. Those bills need to be paid.”