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Athens tourism suffers impact of coronavirus, faces summer uncertainty

Despite students being away from campus, summertime in Athens holds a variety of popular tourist events, such as Boogie on the Bricks, Nelsonville Music Festival and Ohio Brew Week. But heading into this summer season full of uncertainty, Athens summer fun looks to be up in the air. 

The novel coronavirus pandemic has slowed down all aspects of everyday life. As of April 8, 81 out of 88 Ohio counties have at least one confirmed case of the virus; Athens County itself has three. Ohio has also extended its stay at home order to May 1. 

For many, it is becoming harder and harder to determine when things will get back to normal. Many events, such as the Nelsonville Music Festival or Athens Film Festival, have been canceled or postponed. 

“We had our biggest summer on record booked,” Paige Alost, executive director of the Athens County Visitors Bureau, 667 E State St., said. “We’ve already had a lot of events canceled for summer . . . It’s a bummer.”

With both empty dorms and social distancing in full effect, local Athens businesses are being hit hard. Athens being a college town only heightens the circumstances, Alost said. 

“It's a challenge in a college town; you lose half your population,” Alost said. “There's just not enough people here to support the businesses that we have in the way that they need to be supported.”

The Visitors Bureau's job right now is to draw tourists and sustain business for the upcoming fall, Alost explained. 

“We know summer is slower in some regards,” Alost said. “Our job is to try to get people here to hold us over ‘til we get to the fall.”

Alost also recognized that once businesses reopen and things do go back to “normal,” that doesn’t mean everyone will get to pick up where they left off.

“We have to understand that not only will people feel uneasy about traveling, but the vast majority of Americans won’t have the money to travel,” Alost said.

For Alost, one of the things that will continue to draw tourists to Athens this summer is something they already have with them: a love for Athens.  

“Lucky for us, we have a lot of built in love -- that love of place -- from OU alums and students and Athens residents,” Alost said. “It counts for a lot . . . People keep that Athens love with them.”

Alost said the main focus of this summer’s Athens tourism will be day trips. She added that even though nearby Hocking Hills State Park has closed, the region still has many outdoor activities available. The Athens Conservancy is one local organization that showcases many options for outdoor recreation.  

The Athens Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that preserves open spaces and vital wildlife habitat in Athens County, Chris Fahl, president of the Athens Conservancy, said in an email. The conservancy also protects spaces in the city of Athens, too.

Fahl noted the work the conservancy does has been impacted by the pandemic. The conservancy has to use Zoom video calling for meetings and has had to cancel workdays.  

Fahl added that taking a hike is always a good option for doing things during the pandemic. The Hockhocking Adena Bikeway is also a source for outdoor recreation during these times. Fahl mentioned a spot on the bike trail a little further outside of Athens.

“Go out to the bike path out by Movies 10,” Fahl wrote. “We have a preserve that protects significant portions of the bike path. It is called the Bluebell Preserve for a reason.”

Ohio Brew Week, or OBW, is one of Athens’ biggest summer events. OBW is a nine-day craft beer festival that showcases craft beers and breweries. This year’s OBW marks its 15th-year anniversary which would make it one of the longest-running craft beer festivals in the United States, Brandon Thompson, executive director of OBW, said. 

OBW is an important summer festival that helps local businesses and bars during the usual summer lull, Thompson explained. As of right now, OBW is still being organized for July 10-18. But Thompson recognizes that given the ever-changing circumstances, OBW is subject to change.

“We’re not sure if the stay at home (orders) will be lifted,” Thompson said. “We don't know what state we’ll be in. It’s causing a lot of disruptions.”

A lot of planning goes into OBW around this time of year, Thompson said. For Thompson, the most effective method of getting things done right now is breaking preparation down into steps, like budgeting, finding breweries and compiling and printing the OBW booklets.

Thompson said that the board has even thought about virtual options, or postponing OBW to August. Ideally, OBW would occur before the fall semester as a summer economic pick-up for Uptown. 

For Thompson, OBW’s 15th-year mark is especially important. He said he wants badly for OBW to be possible, but knows not everything is in his control. 

“We are trying to make this happen,” Thompson said. “We’re in the same boat as (everyone else). We’re really trying to make this happen (as) the longest craft beer festival in the US. Stay home and stay safe.”


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