SLADE, Ky. (LEX 18) — One of the most visited areas in Kentucky is reopening tomorrow.
For struggling seasonal businesses around Red River Gorge, it's the economic shot in the arm needed to bounce back during these difficult times.
"So it's gonna be very exciting to see everybody back in here," said Rob Little, co-owner of Five Star Cabin Rental and 4 Guys RV Park.
Visitors are why businesses have boomed in the area. Staples such as Miguel's Pizza have expanded space and hours. New RV parks, kayak rentals businesses, and cabins are open.
Some even are staying in operation past the typical fall season closing date.
"I honestly believed this was the turning point for the tourism industry in Slade. That we could be a year-round tourism destination," said Miranda Fallen, executive director of Powell County Tourism.
But this year, spring break plans were derailed by the pandemic, and hiking trails effectively shut down.
"We've lost almost three months out of a six month season for boat rentals. And it has hit us quite a bit financially," said Ernie Braden, owner of Red River Adventure. "We weren't approved for the SBA loan, so we lost a lot of our staff members."
It's been a difficult two-plus month stretch for Braden and all neighboring businesses. That's why he had started a petition to reopen the trails and help local establishments stay afloat.
"It's not just our business. It's everyone's businesses," said Braden.
The reopening date for the Gorge was set for early June but was recently moved up to Friday May 22, leading into Memorial Day Weekend.
Fallen says this timing was crucial to try and make up for some of the lost income opportunity.
Braden says he's ready to reopen Friday with the necessary adjustments. For Red River Adventure, those traveling on buses will have to wear face masks, and trips will have less than 50-percent occupancy. The surfaces will also be heavily sanitized.
The same goes for Five Star Cabin Rental, where Little promises to keep the cabins clean so guests can feel safe.
"And they (cleaning techs) focus on switches, knobs, buttons, remotes, certain surfaces that are high use," said Braden.
At the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, Kristen Wiley continues interacting with fans over social media. Once the tours return, they will be more self-guided but she'll be close by to help.
"It will be at a distance so that we can answer questions over the radio as opposed to being out there right in person, breathing in each other's faces," said Wiley.
For these small business operators, the economic nightmare ends Friday, but the Gorge you knew before this season will be operating in a new normal.
"We want you here. We're excited to see you back. We need you in our businesses, but be respectful and do that from a distance and as safely as you can," said Fallen.
One of the major improvements coming to the Slade area will be broadband access.
Fallen, County Judge/Executive James Anderson, and the local broadband commission say the county secured a grant to expand broadband access in the Natural Bridge area. Fallen says more than 20 businesses and some homes will benefit.
Anderson says they've worked hard to secure more access for rural parts of the county, a need even more highlighted by this pandemic. He's hoping more lines are on the way.