Cocoa Begtrup and his wife Laurie have hosted Thanksgiving at their Royal Palm Beach home for more than 30 years, with as many as 35 family members enjoying a massive feast. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s group will shrink.
“Thanksgiving is a big deal in our house. Since about 1986, we have had a large gathering, but sadly, this year only about 10 people. I don’t want them here because of the coronavirus,” Cocoa Begtrup said. “It is the holiday we do at our house. A lot of years we would have to cook two turkeys, and I cooked extra legs. My sister always brought a ham.”
Family members are getting COVID-19 tests before Thanksgiving Day, Begtrup said, adding, “You can’t be too careful.”
Smaller gatherings at home and at restaurants are in vogue, and self-serve Thanksgiving buffets are out. Restaurants and grocery stores are experiencing a booming take-out business for prepared Thanksgiving dinners.
Area hotels are continuing to follow and exceed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sanitation guidelines. They are hoping that dining packages and incentives will bring guests seeking a safe getaway at a time when hotel occupancy rates are still below normal.
There’s also evidence that renewed shutdowns in other states are impacting Florida tourism. Meanwhile, Palm Beach County’s tourism marketing agency, Discover the Palm Beaches, is working to get the word out about what the county has to offer.
AAA released a forecast in mid-November stating that Thanksgiving travel will be down close to 10 percent, with about 6 million fewer travelers than 2019. This year an estimated 50 million Americans are expected to travel by vehicle or air over the five days from Wednesday to Sunday.
AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said Thursday, “Given the rise in COVID cases and the CDC’s advice to stay home, AAA says it’s likely that even fewer Americans will travel this Thanksgiving than originally forecast.”
Health concerns because of the pandemic and unemployment are the key factors in what is projected to be the lowest Thanksgiving travel volume in four years. Gas prices are close to 50 cents less per gallon than last year, with Florida’s average hovering just above $2 a gallon.
In Florida 2.76 million people are expected to travel over Thanksgiving, down more than 5 percent from 2.91 million a year ago, AAA said.
Hotel bookings continue to be a roller coaster, said Peter Ricci, professor and director, hospitality & tourism management, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton.
“When cases increase as they have this week, there is a lot of fear and cancellations. People do not want to do large groups. If anything, it will be a smaller family traveling,” Ricci said.
“Hotels are telling me they will be at 80 to 100 percent occupancy on weekends, especially beach hotels,” Ricci said. “Then Sunday through Thursday, they are 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, but still nowhere they are able to be solvent. You can’t live on the weekend business alone.”
Families are doing the best they can to celebrate a scaled-back Thanksgiving, departing from long-standing traditions, while being as safe as possible.
Stephanie Ferrara, a Jupiter mother of three, is taking her three children camping with friends at Fort Wilderness at Disney World. On Thanksgiving Day, she will either take the kids to Epcot, or perhaps have dinner at her mom’s house.
“I just want a fun week with the kids,” Ferrara said. “You know, it’s such a weird year.”
Jennifer Jones, a mother of one, normally goes to Orlando during Thanksgiving week or spends the holiday at big family gatherings. This year, she will spend Thanksgiving at a local friend’s house, with a total of six people.
“There will be no family get-together or vacation this holiday,” Jones said.
What local restaurants are planning
In response to the demand for smaller and more intimate Thanksgiving gatherings, Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan is offering private oceanfront cabana dining for $500 per couple.
The five-course dinner starts with a trio of shrimp, lobster and crab, continues with soup, salad and features a Caramelized Roasted Amish Raised turkey with apple-sage stuffing and potato puree plus family-style sides and a choice of apple or pumpkin pie. A complimentary open bar and table-side wine service are included.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the times we are living in, to be out in the fresh air on the ocean and have a private family dinner,” said Nick Gold, Eau Palm Beach’s director of public relations.
The resort also offers private dining rooms with the same dinner being served in its ballroom. Guests can also dine outdoors for $65 per adult and $35 per child at Temple Orange on its extended terrace with an ocean view.
“All in all, considering what we are all going through, it is looking good. We are seeing a lot of families booking rooms with us, coming from the northeast and from around Florida,” Gold said.
Tricia Taylor, executive vice president and general manager of The Breakers, Palm Beach, said Friday, “Even with 2020 being a year like unlike any other, there is strong interest in holiday hotel stays and dining. Our priority continues to be the health and safety of our team, guests and community.”
Taylor said The Breakers created a “B Safe Health and Safety Initiative” which includes enhanced precautions such as facial covering requirements, social distancing, elevated cleaning and self-imposed reduced capacities.
“For the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, confirmed room reservations are solid. We are seeing an increase in short-term bookings with noteworthy demand from the drive market, especially from South Florida residents.” Taylor said. “We anticipate inquiries throughout next week, during which time we expect to reach our occupancy limit.”
Although The Breakers is permitted to operate at 100 percent capacity, it will sell up to 400 of its 538 rooms to support a spacious experience for guests. Its 10 restaurants are operated at 50 percent capacity, Taylor said.
“Our restaurants remain in high demand, which includes Thanksgiving, and we continue to receive feedback from guests who regularly share how comfortable they feel dining with us,” Taylor said. “Recognizing the current circumstances with COVID-19 cases increase, remain mindful that the strictest protocols are critically important.”
Jessica Gonzalez, events manager at Kitchen, a West Palm Beach restaurant, said its Thanksgiving menu that includes everything from salmon cakes to truffled cauliflower and mushroom soup to roasted turkey breast, other sides and its legendary coconut cake, is proving to be popular. The cost is $75 per adult and $25 per child.
“People are so thrilled. They love the menu and are familiar with our grab-and-go curbside concept,” Gonzalez said. “We have a lot of orders for two dinners and for six dinners.”
FAU’s Ricci said that restaurants in every price range are offering discounted Thanksgiving dinners as they attempt to serve customers and stay in business.
Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day are the two biggest holidays for buffets, but this year restaurants and country clubs known for buffets might have a buffet behind plexi-glass where the waiter brings the food patrons have selected, or no buffet.
Grocery stores are also doing a brisk business with orders for prepared turkeys and sides.
“Grocery stores are up 20 percent in sales since COVID. They are one of the areas hiring our hospitality type of student,” Ricci said.
Hotel revenues are down
Overall, Ricci expects hotel revenues to be down 20 to 30 percent compared to last season. Occupancy rates are not the only factor to consider. Hotels are offering discounts to bring back visitors, but this hurts their profitability as costs such as staffing and laundry increase with more visitors.
Cheryl Grantham, owner and innkeeper of Casa Grandview Bed & Breakfast and Casa Grandview Vacation Rentals, West Palm Beach, said she has had five cancellations this week from people who were booked for Thanksgiving week.
“We had a wedding celebration canceled due to state restrictions. Their state ─ Oregon ─ is locking them down,” Grantham said. “Some of the states are saying if you leave the state you have to quarantine for two weeks when you come back.”
It has been a rough year, as Casa Grandview was required to shut down in March, and not permitted to reopen until September, except for month-long rentals in August.
“We had a flurry of activity in September and October because up to 300,000 people have left New York for parts unknown,” Grantham said.
Grantham said she has never experienced such a difficult time since starting the B&B 16 years ago, and the vacation home rentals 11 years ago. She is concerned not only about the hospitality business in general, but about the workers from concierges to busboys and the person answering the phone.
Discover the Palm Beaches CEO and president Jorge Pesquera said the county’s official marketing group is working hard to promote Palm Beach County’s tourism industry, which in a normal year, has an economic impact of approximately $7 billion.
“We are trying every possible way to keep the momentum going. Clearly the recent statistics on the virus are not helpful. To attract visitors, hotels and restaurants are offering all sorts of dining packages and incentives,” Pesquera said.
“We have been moving upward since the worst of times, which was April, when we ran about 20 percent occupancy. We are up to 45 percent now with these specials. We are hoping that by December, if things stabilize, we can get to 55 percent occupancy,” Pesquera said.
The November occupancy rate is normally in the high 60s. Palm Beach County’s hotel room inventory has grown to close to 18,000 rooms with the recent addition of 512 more rooms at newly opened hotels. They are The Ben Autograph Collection and The Canopy by Hilton, both in downtown West Palm Beach, Residence Inn, Palm Beach Gardens and White Elephant Palm Beach.
“We have had a lot of success in getting what I call staycations from the South Florida region. When all these issues erupted in New York and New Jersey, we changed our focus to the drive market,” Pesquera said.
Discover the Palm Beaches plans to launch a new campaign January targeting New York, New Jersey Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Chicago.
The Palm Beaches is the first destination in Florida to support businesses pursuing the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s Star accreditation requiring the highest standards for a cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention programs. So far, nine businesses from The Flagler Museum to the Palm Beach County Convention Center have received the GBAC accreditation, and more than 150 businesses have signed The Palm Beaches Pledge, stating they promise to follow health and government guidelines designed to prevent COVID’s spread.
“With all the barrage of health directives, it is understandable this is going to be a very unique year in the world of tourism and hospitality,” Pesquera said. “The good news is that as soon as we can crush this virus and get the vaccine going, there is a very high expectation that there will be a strong recovery in the second half of 2021.”
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Jodie Wagner contributed to this report.