STONINGTON — The first quarter of 2020 was shaping up to be one of the best that Tiger LeBelle had seen in his 40 years in the industry.

Business was booming for LeBelle, who has owned and operated Connors & O’Brien Marina on Mechanic Street in Pawcatuck for the last four years, and his small enterprise was doing so well that he was able to add an employee to the payroll to aid with an anticipated growth in boat sales and repair needs during the coming season.

Then the COVID-19 crisis struck and with it, the boating industry like many others began to face a wider range of uncertainty.

“In the beginning of the year, it started looking like we were going to have a real good season ahead, but as soon as the virus started spreading and people began to fall ill and lose their jobs, we saw immediately that some people were no longer spending their money.”

Warmer weather and sunshine over the last few weeks have helped thaw out the colder start to the season but LeBelle, Stonington Marina owner Paul Kirrane and staff with Lockwood Marinas, which owns Coveside Marina in Stonington, Cove’s Edge Marina in Watch Hill, and both Mystic Point Marina and Palmer’s Cove Marina in Mystic, all said they are more concerned with what the future brings than the impact the virus is having now.

For marinas in the greater Stonington and Westerly area, LeBelle and Kirrane said they have seen several slight upticks through the season thus far. Some of the early season clientele, many who have a higher level of disposable income, had decided to put their boats in early while a much smaller group indicated they would not be doing so this year.

Still others have been in a “wait and see” state due to a variety of unknowns related to state restrictions and virus exposure. While some are starting to put their vessels back on the water, others are continuing to watch and evaluate the best way to proceed.

Staff with Palmer’s Cove said this week that they’ve “been swamped” with those interested in getting their summer season started, but admitted that April was slow. They said they were unable to determine whether it was due to the virus or more a result of weather that was nearly 10 degrees below average for this time of year and included a high percentage of rainy and overcast days.

Marinas aren’t immune from social distancing requirements, however, and business is a little different this year. At Stonington Marina, Kirrane said staff has been able to stay on full-time thanks in part to a Paycheck Protection Loan and that has allowed staff to work with those seeking to get their vessels ready and on the water using masks and proper equipment. Services are provided in more intimate settings and communication is done by phone or email when possible. The same restrictions are in place at Connors & O’Brien Marina, which LeBelle said closed its showroom to the public six weeks ago and has instead gone to providing curbside and one-on-services for customers.

“For us, safety remains the top priority, both for our customers and our staff,” LeBelle said. “We will provide the best service we can, but not at the risk of people getting sick.”

Uncertain future

Once the boats are back on the water, LeBelle said his biggest concern is how the lower incomes for working class families and the unknowns caused by the virus and shutdown will impact people’s recreational spending.

“It’s not right now that we are worried about. The industry hasn’t seen the impact yet in the same way some others have,” LeBelle said. “My concern is what happens in the summer months, when we normally would rely on people using their boats to make ends meet.”

Between late June and the end of August, small-business marinas rely on repairs and accessory sales in order to carry payroll through until the end-of-season maintenance period. If people use their boats less over the summer or decide not to customize the vessels, it will cause a potentially drastic drop in income.

Furthermore, LeBelle said others who may try and get their boat on the water may decide that if repairs are needed, they are simply going to dock the boat for the remainder of the season rather than invest in those repairs.

“It’s just the reality of being in a recreational industry. Recreational money tends to dry up first more than anything,” he said.

Rental woes

For Stonington Marina, the economic impact of losing rentals have been the biggest concern so far this year.

The business owns three houses that it rents through the vacation season as well as providing boat and kayak rentals, and both of those enterprises have already been hit as a result of the restrictions.

“The boat and kayak rental aspect of the business is closed. We’ve also lost a lot of weekend rentals that we’d normally have early season,” Kirrane said. “We’ve been fortunate to have a 30+ day rental, but it still doesn’t fully offset the losses.”

Kirrane said his biggest frustration isn’t that he has been unable to conduct his usual rental business — he said he understands the severity of the virus and the need to take precautions, and will adjust his business as needed to comply with expert guidelines — but the lack of communication from the state.

Connecticut is ready to begin phase 1 of a multistep reopening process with certain businesses approved to reopen with restrictions on May 20, and the details of additional phases are expected from Gov. Ne Lamont’s office in the coming week. The rental portion of Kirrane’s business isn’t part of the first phase, however, and repeated questions to state agencies has yielded him no answers so far.

“The thing is, no one seems to know what the plan is. That’s a problem for small business owners,” he said. “It’s very difficult to plan for your business when you just don’t know what the restrictions or conditions may be.

“If we need to shut down for public safety then that’s fine, it is what it is. They need to do a better job of communicating and what will be open and when so that businesses know how to balance their budget and can plan for the future.”

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