Marion businesses work to convince customers to come back.

May 29, 2020

Businesses in Marion County are ramping up after weeks under a state-ordered COVID-19 lockdown. Now, they have to convince people it’s safe to return.

That is the major hurdle faced by many businesses, according to participants at a Thursday night reopening summit organized by HDG Hotel Development and Management Group and attended by representatives from a cross-section of local industries.

“We’re hopeful that we can start to get consumer confidence up because that is one of our biggest challenges,” said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Dover said her group, which represents more than 10,000 restaurants and hotels across the state, is implementing COVID-19 safety training classes and certification. It will start promoting the training effort to the public in the coming weeks to try and assuage customer concerns about dining out or staying in a hotel.

Lisa Lombardo, spokeswoman for HDG, said the hotel industry has always used hospital-grade disinfectant. They are now using higher concentrations to kill germs faster. Staff is also using more personal protection equipment, and plastic shields went up at front desks. One amenity that suffered was the buffet breakfast: HDG hotels no longer offer the popular option. Now, they offer bagged breakfasts.

“We’re focused on keeping our employees healthy, our guests healthy,” said Navroz Saju, CEO of HDG, which operates 18 hotels in Central Florida, including several in Marion County.

He said the state’s reopening was important, but building that consumer confidence is essential.

“When we have 25% of our rooms full, we can’t stay in business. We can’t stay in business with 40% of our rooms (full),” Saju said. “We’ve made adjustments, but we’ve got to, got to come back.”

That reticence to venture out is not just problematic for the area’s economic health; it also can be deadly.

Chad Christianson, CEO of Ocala Health, which operates Ocala Regional Medical Center and West Marion Community Center, said people are staying away from the emergency room.

“We’re probably still at 70% of what we were going into it,” he said of the ER traffic.