Opinion

Buncombe County hit hard, but not just by COVID-19

North Carolina’s tourism industry lost more than half of its jobs in the first part of 2020 following Gov. Roy Cooper’s lockdowns. Annual visitor spending decreased 32% from 2019. Buncombe County in particular took a significant hit. Visitor spending decreased by a whopping 34.9% from 2019, the 10th largest among North Carolina counties.

Given the county makes up a large percentage (7.3%) of the total share of state visitor spending, coupled with the numerous tourist attractions of Asheville, this decrease may not seem shocking. But compare those losses to visitor-rich Dare County, and the results are staggering. Home to the Outer Banks, Dare County receives a comparable percentage (7.1%) of state visitor spending but suffered only a 2.2% drop in visitor spending in 2020.

How could Buncombe be so detrimentally affected?

Floods of government funding combined with the harsh lockdowns have discouraged work and threatened to sink the labor market. Buncombe County already has high local taxes and costs of living. Taken together, Cooper’s lockdowns and strict mandates at the local level are responsible for driving folks away from the area. Buncombe’s heavy reliance on tourism was a primary factor.

Even as the tourism sector was economically damaged, the total state market share of visitors increased. North Carolina was the fifth-most-visited state in 2020 — up from the sixth in recent years. Given that Cooper mandated the closure of indoor activities, the proportion of visitors who enjoyed the state’s scenic outdoor activities increased in 2020.

Dare County’s primary attraction is the outdoors (the beach), while Buncombe County offers many outdoor and indoor attractions. Strict indoor restrictions likely contributed to the worsened state for Buncombe.

Unsurprisingly, Buncombe County lost a significant amount of money and jobs.

Employment-related to tourism dropped 26% from 2019 levels, and related-labor income decreased 24%. Buncombe reached 18.5% total unemployment in April 2020. Before the pandemic, the county thrived with record-low unemployment. In fact, the Citizen-Times reported that before COVID-19, the region had claimed the lowest unemployment rate in the state for 61 consecutive months. Yet during the first pandemic summer, it had the fifth-highest unemployment rate.

Leisure and hospitality employment levels alone dropped 57% in the first part of 2020 in Asheville – nearly decimating that sector. The county labor force also shrunk. Between January 2020 and April 2020, labor force participation dropped roughly 9.2%.

Today the county is desperately struggling to find workers. Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the economic effects of the lockdowns, even though they have been a sustained problem for businesses. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey showed employers cited labor shortage as a driving issue more than twice as often as COVID-19.

We now know that employing shutdowns to slow the spread of the virus unfortunately may have been in vain. Some research reveals that shelter-in-place policies actually led to more deaths. There is substantial evidence that deaths of despair, mental illness issues, and substance abuse increased as everyday life shifted and many people could not be with family and friends. Hospitals’ postponing of non-COVID-19 patient care caused a delay in essential, preventive treatment and care. And sadly, Cooper’s shutdowns further exacerbated racial inequality as job losses and business closures disproportionately affected the black community.

These negative consequences have still not received prominent attention from Cooper or state health leaders. It’s time they step up and acknowledge the impact. The tourism industry will recover, but it will likely not be quick to forget who imposed the lockdowns that discriminately stifled livelihoods.

Paige Terryberry is fiscal policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.