ROCKFORD — A hospitality and tourism industry that last year attracted $392 million in annual visitor spending in Winnebago County is reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though hotels and motels are considered essential businesses and remain open, occupancy rates have plummeted since Gov. JB Pritzker issued directives limiting public gatherings and closing bars, restaurants, schools and nonessential businesses. A statewide stay-at-home order took effect March 21.

That doesn’t mean hotels are empty. Highway travelers, truckers and employees of essential businesses, like visiting nurses, still need a place to stay, said John Groh, CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

But business from sports tournaments, routine business trips, conferences and events has evaporated. And Groh said that even after the stay-at-home order is lifted, it could take time for the industry to snap back.

“We have a long road to recovery,” Groh said. “There is the road to recovery that is both economic for the country and for the Midwest, and then there is the psychological recovery in terms of when will the American traveling public feel OK about traveling again and being in groups?

“When will corporations that have travel bans and restrictions lift those so that their employees can start traveling again?”

Six weeks ago, hotels and motels in Winnebago County were 73.5% occupied as winter gave way to the spring sports tournament season, according to information from Smith Travel Research LLC provided by the visitors bureau.

By the week that ended April 11, the average occupancy rate had fallen to 28%. Hotels boasted a 77.8% occupancy rate the same week a year ago. Revenue was down more than 73%.

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Scott Meyers, general manager of the Alpine Inn, 4404 E. State St., and president of the Rockford Area Hotel Motel Association, takes a more optimistic view of the industry’s chances of bouncing back.

Meyers said that he believes there is pent-up demand for travel and that business will improve once restrictions are lifted.

“We are down 30 to 40% of where we should be right now, which is pretty rough,” Meyers said. “I think that going forward, people will want to get out as quickly as they can as soon as all the restrictions get lifted. People are going to be traveling as soon as they can.”

Rockford Finance Director Carrie Hagerty said the struggles of the hotel and tourism industry could lead to problems for the city, depending on how long restrictions continue. The bulk of hotel and motel tax revenue pays for operations of the visitors bureau, which is likely to face funding cuts in coming weeks.

The city’s redevelopment fund — a special city account funded by a 1% tax on hotel stays, bar tabs and restaurant bills — is financially strong for now. Money in the fund pays for a variety of redevelopment initiatives, such as the debt from improvements at the BMO Harris Bank Center and construction of the downtown conference center and the UW Health Sports Factory.

“Generally the redevelopment fund is in a positive position right now, but we are anticipating a sharp decline in those revenues based on the economic situation,” Hagerty said.

It is possible that the city will be forced to consider using general fund revenue to cover shortfalls in the redevelopment fund or find other solutions.

Many hotels and motels have laid off at least some employees. Most have closed pools, spas and workout facilities. Breakfast services have been canceled or altered to prevent having guests congregate in the lobby.

They have intensified cleaning practices in common areas and taken measures to enforce social distancing. Rooms with guests are being cleaned less often to allow time for the coronavirus to die. Instead of entering a guest’s room to deliver towels and linen, the items are simply dropped off. Guests place dirty linens inside a sealed bag and the items inside are cleaned three days later to prevent possible transmission of the coronavirus.

“While the news is still very dire for our hotels, I’d say if there is any glimmer of hope it’s that we are seeing three weeks of relatively stable hotel data — no major drops over the prior week,” Groh said. “So, unless the economy gets worse — which it might — or the pandemic gets worse — which it might — let’s hope this might be a bottom point to recover from.”

Jeff Kolkey: jkolkey@rrstar.com; @jeffkolkey