WNC outdoor outfitters slowly reopen, take huge financial hit from COVID-19

WNC outdoor outfitters slowly reopen, take huge financial hit from COVID-19

In Phase 2 of North Carolina’s COVID-19 reopenings, outdoor outfitters, raft guides, bike parks, fishing guides and climbing gyms are still struggling. After a roller coaster ride, shares have been declining over the past month as coronavirus cases begin to rise. In their pursuit of Ghislaine Maxwell for what they say is her role in Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking ring, federal prosecutors claim to have unearthed a series of unusual financial transactions involving the two that add a new layer to the mysterious financial complexities underpinning the larger Epstein saga.



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Kelli Walraven is thrilled to be back at work at Rivers Edge Outfitters in Cherokee, the fishing guide service and retail shop she has owned with husband, Joey Walraven, for six years.

But looking out over the scenic, cool, clear-flowing Oconaluftee River, where her shop is perched, and preparing for the July 4 holiday, Walraven still has a bit of financial fear.

Her business, like all outdoor outfitters, deemed non-essential during Gov. Roy Cooper’s coronavirus closure orders, was closed March 23. Sitting in the middle of the Qualla Boundary, the Walravens were also under strict closure orders by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and were able to even enter their store until the partial opening May 15.

“It hit us pretty hard. A lot of our guides, they have families and it’s their only job,” Walraven said. “It’s been a terrible thing. We got a PPP loan, but it wasn’t enough to pay our employees and pay rent.”

Even as North Carolina’s phase 2 reopening has allowed outdoor outfitters to salvage some of their summer business, and bask in the tourist hordes this July 4 weekend, being seasonal, weather-dependent companies like whitewater outfitters, ziplines, bike parks and hiking and fishing guides, coronavirus took a massive chunk out of their short seasons.

Some say it may take years to recover.

Walraven she said while the shop, which sells fishing gear and apparel, is open year-round, the guiding service’s main season is spring through fall. They lost the busy spring season, and things slow down after July because the trout don’t bite as much in the heat.

She has been able to hire back her 10 employees, including the guides who have been taking tourists on catch-and-release trout fishing trips on reservation rivers, in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala Gorge.

“Making some money is better than no money. We’re thankful to be open now. We’re scared we’ll shut down again because COVID cases are on the rise,” she said.

North Carolina has not been able to flatten its curve, with coronavirus cases steadily rising. On July 3, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported the state’s highest one-day number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases with 2,099 cases.

RELATED: Pisgah National Forest opens more recreation areas for summer

Walraven said even though the retail shop is open, they weren’t allowed to be on the property for months to accept orders so they are now having trouble stocking the shelves. But people have been coming from across the country to fish the prized trout waters.

Elizabeth Jackson, owner and general manager of the Riveter, just opened the climbing gym, bike park and yoga and wellness center in Mills River Feb. 8, having to shut it down due to coronavirus March 17.

“It has definitely been a challenge. We planned opening in the winter because we knew it would give us time to get bearings before the spring, summer, fall rush,” she said.

Jackson had hired a staff of 20 and had to furlough some for a period of time. She was able to open the bike park May 17, but not the indoor climbing gym or yoga studio, which she thought would be the focal point of her business.

Instead, she pivoted to making the 3-acre bike park the Riveter highlight. Jackson was able to get a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and, she said with help from Mountain BizWorks, received a grant from the $5 million Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund, established by the county’s Tourism Development Authority to help local businesses recover from the financial impacts of COVID-19.

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She said she told her staff she would do everything she could not to leave them “high and dry,” and has been able to bring back all full-time staff, although not the part-timers.

The bike park is also not open at full capacity, to allow for social distancing between riders. She is making up for the loss of gym use by holding fitness classes outdoors.

“I feel really good. I know I’m in the right place in the region. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some anxiety,” Jackson said.

Jeff Greiner, owner of Asheville Adventure Center, which includes a zipline, canopy tours and Kolo Bike Park, and his family business Wildwater Rafting, which runs trips on four WNC rivers and a zipline in the Nantahala Gorge, said he has already lost more than $1 million in revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic from lost business and having to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in refunds.

“The outfitters who do rafting, our season is so limited, the peak summer season that runs through the middle of August is critical,” Greiner said.

He said spring and fall give whitewater outfitters a bit of a buffer if a summer is rainy, if there are hurricanes or road washouts from floods. But the spring buffer vanished this year.

Rafting never opened and ziplines closed the second week in March. Although Greiner was able to start reopening in mid-May, he had to off 30 employees, including himself, and went into “hibernation” for two months.  

Because he lost the spring hiring and training time, he has been playing catch up to recruit staff since those he usually hires found other jobs or weren’t comfortable with the outfitters’ work of being in close proximity to other people.

The Asheville-based ziplines and bike park are operating at about 50% capacity, he said, while the rafting business is at about 70%.

“This is our 50th season. We’re not going anywhere. We’ve been through droughts, 9/11, other things that have impacted us, but it will take us years to recover,” he said.

Greiner – and health experts – say being outdoors is safer than being indoors in terms of spreading coronavirus due to UV light, which kills the coronavirus, and better air flow. But there is still a risk of transmission.

While some local paddling companies are not mandating or enforcing social distancing, most outdoor industry business are not playing around when it comes CDC and state health department COVID-19 safety precautions, he said.

At the Adventure Center of Asheville, the zipline check-in station was moved outside and all employees and guests are required to wear masks in buildings, restrooms, and as soon as they are within 6 feet of each other, following CDC safety guidelines.

On rafting trips, guests are required to wear masks on the buses, which take them to the river put-ins, buses are only running at half capacity, and drivers must wear masks. While actually rafting on a river, people can remove their masks. Greiner said buses are wiped down after each trip.

Wildwater is also offering people an option of reserving a guided raft or ziplining tour in the Gorge with just a family or private group at a discount for those who would rather not be in such close proximity with strangers.

RELATED: Haywood County land set aside for conservation, outdoor recreation

e said they purchased 25 gallons of the locally made hand sanitizer from Cultivated Cocktails and have it available at all bathrooms and indoor areas, and everyone on a zipline tour must get a squirt of it before entering.

Rented gear, including life jackets, helmets and gloves for zipping, paddling helmets and mountain bikes, are all being sanitized after every use.

Greiner said he has visitors from across the country, and some have not been happy with the mask policy and at least one wrote a negative review of Adventure Center. He said that’s unfortunate, but he’s erring on the side of safety over marketing.

“We have to enforce the mask policy. If you’re not worried about yourself getting sick, we’re worried about our employees,” Greiner said.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center, one of the nation’s largest outdoor outfitters, which runs trips on six WNC rivers, retail stores, lodging, restaurants, zipline, bike rentals and paddling instruction, has about 1 million guests a year, said Jan Wojtasinski, vice president of marketing.

He said NOC, which has a main campus on the Nantahala River in Swain County, and several outposts around WNC, made the hard decision to shut down all its operations in early March, even before the governor’s closure orders, losing a large percentage of their annual business.

The nearly 50-year-old company typically has 120 full-time staff year-round, and ramps up to 800 by July. They started a slow reopening in mid-May and now have about 450 employees.

Wojtasinski said all of its operations are at reduced capacity, modified in some way and are adhering to strict safety guidelines.

All employees receive pre-shift temperature checks and are required to wear face masks indoors.

Visitors to NOC’s North Carolina based locations, restaurants, and retail stores are required to wear face masks or coverings and visitors to operations in other states are encouraged to wear them, he said.

Coronavirus: Trail etiquette during the pandemic in WNC’s outdoors

Visitors, who come from around the world, are advised not to come NOC if they are ill, exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, or have been exposed to COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

All NOC Adventure guests will be subject to a pre-trip screening that includes a contactless temperature check, and are asked to maintain at least 6 feet of social distance indoors and whenever possible outdoors.

River’s End restaurant only has 10 indoor tables and has bumped up its to-go orders, so people can order a pizza and eat it sitting out by the river. Big Wesser is an open-air eatery, so folks can order and sit outdoors in a socially distanced setting, Wojtasinski said.

Before adventure trips, guests have their temperature checked. On whitewater trips, guides, drivers and guests are required to wear masks on bus shuttles, and bus capacity has been cut in half.

Once on the river, guests can remove their masks, he said.

While the company has always washed the reusable life jackets and helmets after each trip, sanitizing procedures have been increased to include sanitizing rafts and other boats, paddles, and rented mountain bikes, which are wiped down in a peroxide or alcohol-based solution after each guest.

Although Wojtasinski said it will take NOC years to recover from this year’s losses, he said they are lucky, being such a large, diversified company.

RELATED: Pisgah, Nantahala National Forest plan addresses recreation

“Rafting and adventure activities are all about managing risk. That’s what we do every year. These are very large risks, they’re new risks and they’re presenting a lot of really new challenges that are sometimes uncomfortable to figure out,” he said.

“We’re pretty upfront with our guests that we can never eliminate risk. That’s not our job. Our job is to help minimize it and still provide a great experience and so I feel like we’re doing that pretty well.”

At Rivers Edge, Walraven said the outfitter is following all the guidelines from the state, CDC and the EBCI. Employees and customers have must wear masks in the store.

When out on fishing trips, guides drive separately so they are not in close contact with the client.

They sanitize waders, boots down and fishing rods after every guest, and guides try to maintain 6 feet of distance from clients on the river, she said.

“Sometimes it’s hard when netting a fish. But if a client wants them to wear a face mask, then guides will do that,” she said.

“I think everybody is a little stir crazy and feel safer outside. They just want to get out in the mountains. WNC is beautiful, the fishing is great, and they want to camp and be with their families,” Walraven said.

“I’m just hoping everybody wears face mask and maintains social distance.”

Karen Chávez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.

Reach me: KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or on Twitter @KarenChavezACT

Read or Share this story: https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2020/07/03/wnc-outdoor-outfitters-take-covid-19-safety-precautions-they-reopen/5329862002/

Source: www.citizen-times.com

Author: Karen Chávez, Asheville Citizen Times
Published 9:06 p.m. ET July 3, 2020

Why Planet Fitness Stock Was Down 19% in the First Half of 2020

Why Planet Fitness Stock Was Down 19% in the First Half of 2020

Shares of gym chain Planet Fitness (NYSE:PLNT) fell 18.9% in the first half of 2020, according to data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence. To say it’s been a bumpy ride is an understatement. From February to March, the stock was down around 70%, but then it climbed right back to where it started the year.

Planet Fitness stock is actually down 19% in just the last month. And a June 29 press release from the Monongalia County Health Department in West Virginia exemplifies why it’s going down.

PLNT Chart

PLNT data by YCharts.

Gyms aren’t great spaces to keep open when trying to stop a pandemic’s spread. Health officials and local governments ordered many gyms closed, and there will be lasting consequences. Both Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness filed for bankruptcy, demonstrating the obvious financial burden when doors are forced shut.

For its part, Planet Fitness was in a strong financial situation when the coronavirus pandemic started, and it could gain more market share while its competitors climb out of bankruptcy. Around half of its locations have reopened, membership metrics are unchanged, and gym traffic is returning. All of this explains why the stock came back from March lows.

But the news out of West Virginia is a reminder of how fragile the situation is. A Planet Fitness member tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the local health department to encourage gym members to self-quarantine.

It’s one event in a troubling trend. Cases of COVID-19 are rising around the country, and state governors are starting to reevaluate whether gyms should be open. In light of this development, Planet Fitness stock has been trending down over the past month.

A frustrated man puts his hands on his cheeks with a down stock chart in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Right now, one of the most important pieces of information for Planet Fitness shareholders is something they don’t have access to. It is primarily a franchised business. Therefore, the financial health of the franchisees is crucial information. It’s possible for a franchiser to weather a prolonged storm — like Yum! Brands for example. But a Yum! Brands franchisee, with a whopping 1,200 Pizza Hut locations, just filed for bankruptcy. 

This demonstrates it’s possible for Planet Fitness to be fine financially while the individual gym operators might not be. There’s no way to know for sure; we just don’t have concrete information on that. 

When its gyms are allowed to operate normally, there’s no question Planet Fitness is a top stock to buy. But if the coronavirus causes gyms to close again for an extended time, it could be rough for shareholders for the remainder of 2020. Investors worried about the COVID-19 trend might choose to wait on Planet Fitness for now, electing a safer stock instead.

Source: www.fool.com

Author: Jon Quast

In pursuit of Ghislaine Maxwell, authorities allege mysterious financial dealings with Jeffrey Epstein

In pursuit of Ghislaine Maxwell, authorities allege mysterious financial dealings with Jeffrey Epstein

New York (CNN)In their pursuit of Ghislaine Maxwell for what they say is her role in Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking ring, federal prosecutors claim to have unearthed a series of unusual financial transactions involving the two that add a new layer to the mysterious financial complexities underpinning the larger Epstein saga.

The financial relationship between Epstein, the late multimillionaire whose sources of wealth remain largely murky, and Maxwell, the British socialite whose newspaper tycoon father died just before being implicated in a massive pension fraud scandal, has long been difficult to decipher.

The two ran in the rarefied world of billionaire bankers and society figures, but it was unclear how either came to have the means to support such a lifestyle.

    Epstein billed himself as a money manager to billionaires, but it was not apparent that he had any clients besides Leslie Wexner, the founder and chairman of Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands, who took the unusual step of granting Epstein power of attorney and who later accused him of having “misappropriated vast sums” from Wexner and his family. Maxwell has said in court papers that Epstein pledged to “always support” her financially.

    On Thursday, after charging Maxwell with recruiting, grooming and sexually abusing underage girls as young as 14 as part of Epstein’s alleged yearslong criminal enterprise, federal prosecutors disclosed that for a five-year period beginning in 2007, Maxwell and Epstein exchanged more than $20 million dollars between their bank accounts, with the sums going first from Epstein to Maxwell, and then back to Epstein.

    An attorney for Maxwell, Jeffrey S. Pagliuca, didn’t respond to a request for comment. She and her representatives had previously denied she engaged in sexual abuse or sex trafficking.

    Legal experts said the transfers raise questions about whether those were legitimate payments or were used to mask illegal conduct.

    “The fact that she and he would exchange so much money indicates that they had a very close business relationship and that he clearly trusted her with a phenomenal amount of money,” said Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor who handled money laundering and asset forfeiture cases in the Brooklyn US Attorney’s office.

    “There may be a completely innocent explanation for it, but it definitely is a sinister data point,” Levin said. He suggested that the lack of additional information provided by prosecutors about the transfers may mean they don’t yet know their significance but sought to flag for the judge the “odd-looking” behavior.

    Before her arrest, Maxwell was living on a 156-acre New Hampshire estate purchased for $1.07 million in cash in December 2019 "through a carefully anonymized LLC," according to court papers and the realty company.

    Shan Wu, a CNN legal analyst and criminal defense lawyer, said the transactions “that arouse my suspicions are the large transfers in the millions between her accounts and Epstein’s accounts, which raises the question, is there some kind of laundering going on?”

    “Is that her salary? Otherwise why would he need to be transferring such large amounts of money between their accounts? If it’s private transfers, that’s very odd,” Wu said. He said he suspects prosecutors are looking to see where the money trail leads and if it ties into some of the still-unanswered questions about how Epstein funded university donations, among other transfers.

    Prosecutors also detailed transfers they said Maxwell made between her own accounts. Since 2016, prosecutors say, Maxwell has held more than 15 bank accounts that have totaled between several hundred thousand dollars and more than $20 million.

    During that time period and as recently as 2019, prosecutors allege she moved hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time between her accounts: In March 2019, $500,000 from one of her accounts to another; four months later, more than $300,000 from one account to another.

    As recently as last year, prosecutors say she held at least one foreign bank account containing more than $1 million.

    Prosecutors also allege moves tied to her $15 million sale of a New York City property in 2016: After she sold the residence for through a limited liability company, amounts totaling more than $14 million were deposited into an account she is listed as owning. Days later, a sum of more than $14 million was transferred from that account into another account opened in her name.

    “In short, the defendant’s financial resources appear to be substantial, and her numerous accounts and substantial money movements render her total financial picture opaque and indeterminate, even upon a review of bank records available to the Government,” prosecutors wrote.

    At the time of her arrest Thursday, she was found living on a 156-acre Bradford, New Hampshire, estate that was acquired for $1.07 million in an all-cash purchase in December 2019 “through a carefully anonymized LLC,” according to court papers and the realty company.

    According to the indictment unsealed Thursday and other court filings, Maxwell and Epstein have been financially entangled for many years. Prosecutors say that between 1994 and 1997, the period that covers her indictment, the two were in an “intimate” relationship and that he paid her to manage his various properties, which ranged from an Upper East Side mansion to a sprawling ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

    According to a lawsuit she filed in the US Virgin Islands earlier this year against his estate, she was employed by him individually and by several of his affiliated businesses until at least 2006, during which time she was paid to manage his properties in New York, Paris, Florida, New Mexico and the Virgin Islands, where he owned a private island.

      Maxwell claimed in the suit that Epstein told her he would continue to support her financially even if she pursued a business venture of her own, and that in 2004 he gave her a typewritten letter with a handwritten note asking her to “remain in Epstein’s employ and promising that no matter what Maxwell chose to do, Epstein would always support Maxwell financially.”

      Last month, both parties filed a joint motion to stay the proceedings in that lawsuit.

      Source: www.cnn.com

      Author: Erica Orden and Kara Scannell, CNN

      WNC outdoor outfitters slowly reopen, take huge financial hit from COVID-19

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