New Jersey hotels and motels promise that they are safe for travelers amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and those who follow the industry say guests are tending to agree.

But the industry itself remains severely damaged by travel restrictions and reductions, and widespread business travel that drives much of hotel activity may not return to what passes for "normal" for another three years.

That's according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which claims in a new report that COVID's detrimental impact on hotel occupancy is, so far, nine times that of post-9/11 travel concerns.

Officials estimate that the pandemic has effectively wiped out 10 years of growth of hotels across the United States.

Joseph Simonetta, executive director of the NJ Hotel & Lodging Association, said he believes the AHLA projections are accurate. He said this is not like Superstorm Sandy, where the portion of the New Jersey hotel market that took a hit was able to be propped up by other lodging elsewhere.

COVID-19 is a nationwide, worldwide crisis, so there has been no such support — and none is imminent.

"That economic ability to prop one up in one section as opposed to another section that's affected is not evident this time," Simonetta said.

The lack of business travel remains the main culprit. That is projected to remain down 85% through April, and may not fully recover until 2024, the AHLA report said.

Simonetta said in New Jersey, 30 to 50% of all hotel rooms will stay empty through the end of this year, and he said some hotels, especially independently-owned ones, "can't survive" with those numbers and have already closed their doors, at least temporarily.

"They are all struggling, every one is struggling," he said. "Struggling to maintain, struggling to keep the property maintained, struggling to take care of the guests that are coming in."

But when guests do stay at a hotel or motel in New Jersey these days, Simonetta said, they are generally satisfied.

"They're very confident and comfortable with the protocols that have been placed, and they're severe," he said. "The state also placed some protocols that were required by statute."

New Jersey's protocols include, among other things, making sure that rooms are cleaned every 24 hours, replacing linens and bedding even for guests who do not request that service over the course of multiple days, and standard pandemic guidance like masking and social distancing requirements.

Simonetta said he thinks Gov. Phil Murphy has done a good job ensuring that the industry remains afloat to the level that it can thus far, but believes further state and federal stimulus is the "only way to keep the industry alive."

Hospitality as a whole across the country currently sports an 18.9% unemployment rate, although 200,000 hotel jobs are expected to be recovered this year, and that has Simonetta looking up.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I hope we are back to a somewhat normal routine by the middle or end of summer."

One more direct comparison to Sandy: Simonetta predicts that hotels will be a major component of any marketing push by the state to restore faith in tourism as the pandemic winds down.

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