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Sevier tourism tries to calm COVID-19 concerns

As of Thursday, there were no cases of COVID-19 in Sevier County or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Businesses claim to exceed CDC sanitation guidelines.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — Sevier County tourism officials are closely following any new developments of the spread of COVID-19, knowing the livelihood of much of the county depends on dollars from visitors.

At Stony Brook Cabins in Gatlinburg, owner Pam Hill said they are getting lots of calls from customers with questions about COVID-19.

"We're getting a lot of different types of calls. Some people are calling afraid we won't be open," Hill said. "We are open and ready for business. We also have a lot of 'what ifs.' People want to know what the policies are if they want to reschedule their reservation, but they are not canceling yet. There's a lot of fear. We get it and we want to be sympathetic."

Businesses in Sevier County are open. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open. Dollywood will open its season as scheduled on Friday, March 13.

Credit: WBIR

Hill said they are working to calm fears by giving customers the facts. There are 18 cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee, as of Thursday evening.  None of the cases were in Sevier County or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are no official recommendations to avoid travel to Sevier County or other domestic trips within the United States.

There is also no shortage of effort by business owners to go above and beyond the sanitation standards.

"In the cabins, we're taking extra precautions. Before each arrival, we're going in with an extra sanitizer, sanitizing all the surfaces. We are also willing to let people go directly to their cabins for self-check-in to eliminate another point of contact, so they don't have to come to our office. All of our employees are sanitizing their workspaces, washing hands and staying home if they feel the slightest bit sick," said Hill.

Hill said her cabin rentals have benefited from a couple of factors. First, many people are renting cabins after canceling cruises and international spring break trips. Second, a rental cabin presents a chance to self-quarantine while still taking a vacation.

Credit: WBIR
Entrance to the office of Stony Brook Cabins & Chalets in Gatlinburg.

"We had a guy on the phone who was going to the Bahamas, but his flight was canceled. He could drive to Gatlinburg, and he said he'd like to come and stay a couple of nights. So we're accommodating as many of those as we possibly can,"  Hill said. "You can vacation in a cabin and go out and use trails or you can avoid everyone. You can do a lot of vacation activities in your own private cabin with games, movies, hot tubs, pool tables, decks, grilling and other things. We are looking forward to a great spring break. If you're not sick, come on."

Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokesperson Dana Soehn told WBIR 10News, "At this time, the park does not have any reports of Covid-19 cases related to the park. Visitors can be assured that staff continue to monitor conditions and maintain high standards of sanitation to protect the health and wellness of staff and visitors to facilities in the park, including our Visitor Centers and Tremont. The park is following CDC guidance and has a dedicated Park Safety Officer to coordinate park efforts."

Hill said they are willing to work with customers to reschedule reservations. However, nearly all lodging companies and hotels do not offer full refunds just because a customer is afraid they'll get sick.

Credit: WBIR
Parking area at Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"We want to work with people and make sure they have a great time. You need to make your own call on what's best for you and your own family by using your judgment.  We will help any way we can. We are not refunding due to fear of the possibility of getting sick. Just like the insurance companies, the fear of illness while traveling is not a covered event," said Hill.

Marci Claude with Gatlinburg tourism told WBIR 10News the health of visitors is the city's highest priority.  She noted Tennessee has been fortunate to date to have very few confirmed cases, none of which are in Sevier County.  They are keeping a close watch on COVID-19 developments because things change very quickly.

"We’re following closely the recommendations of federal and state officials, including the CDC and the Tennessee Department of Health. As of right now, travel within the US is still considered low risk," wrote Claude. "Local businesses serving our visitors are taking proactive steps out of an abundance of caution to exceed CDC recommendations. We know our guests will use their best judgment in traveling."

RELATED: Mar. 12, 2020 - Facts not Fear: How WBIR will be reporting the coronavirus

RELATED: Mar. 12, 2020 - First coronavirus case confirmed in Knox County, Tennessee now reporting 18 cases statewide

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