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From Parking Attendants To Pet Sitters, Tourism Workers Slammed By Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There are furloughs and layoffs at major hotel chains, including Marriott and Hyatt. U.S. airlines are pleading for $58 billion in government loans and grants. Travel industry groups are warning that millions of jobs will be lost to the lockdowns and social distancing caused by the coronavirus. And as NPR's Alina Selyukh reports, the hit to tourism goes way beyond hotels and airplanes.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The other day, Claire Blue stepped outside and heard something that startled her.

CLAIRE BLUE: I heard nothing.

SELYUKH: The quiet. She lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This time of year, it would be raucous crowds shuttling back and forth, sounds of music drifting into the streets - now all quarantined, shut down, holed up at home.

BLUE: And I sat outside for a while and waited. I thought, you know, I need to hear something. People walking by - anything. And it was so strange.

SELYUKH: Blue is a director at Matthew Peck Art Gallery in the French Quarter. Just months after a grand opening, it's now temporarily closed, one of many victims of the collapse of travel and tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic.

BLUE: Before all of this happened, we had an incredible month. And then literally in one day, it was over. Every job in New Orleans is affected by tourism, except for the grocery stores now, the hospitals.

SELYUKH: The U.S. Travel Association estimates the virus will cost the industry 4.6 million jobs by the end of April. That's more than a quarter. And there are even wider concentric circles of work supported by tourism - airlines and hotels, sure, but also museum and parking lot attendants, hotdog and coffee cart sellers.

JUAN ESCALANTE: I don't have a safety net.

SELYUKH: Juan Escalante works as a tour guide in New York City. It's a contract job, so no benefits. And he's gone from 20 shifts a month to zero - now counting on his tax refund to get by for a bit.

ESCALANTE: I am relying ultimately on the kindness of my friends as family members, the goodness of my landlords.

SELYUKH: Martina Chavez is a super host for Airbnb be welcoming guests to a small house - a casita - next to her home south of Albuquerque.

MARTINA CHAVEZ: We usually have - every single weekend, somebody is staying in our a Airbnb home. We have not had any new inquiries in the last two weeks.

SELYUKH: Chavez says she knows she's one of the lucky ones. She has a day job as a speech and language pathologist, and her husband is a PE teacher. So they're both still employed, though having to figure out how to keep reaching students in the rural community remotely often without good Internet access. The Airbnb was savings for her retirement. Across the country near Detroit, Beverly Pickering is having flashbacks of losing her own retirement savings in the 2008 market crash.

BEVERLY PICKERING: I feel like I am right back there all over again, you know? My business is based on people not being home.

SELYUKH: Pickering is a dog walker and pet sitter. It's not a job you may associate with tourism, but 70% of her business relies on people traveling. She says this is normally her busiest time looking after dogs and cats and guinea pigs as people head out for spring break or to shake off the winter blues. Instead, she's down to two clients who are paying even though they don't really need a dog walker.

PICKERING: One of the families has kids. The kids could probably be doing it, and they're still so generously (laughter), you know, letting me do my job.

SELYUKH: In Pickering's garage are shingles she'd bought to patch a little hole in her roof that occasionally leaks into a bucket underneath. But she had to cancel on the roofer, who is now an unsuspecting victim of the decline in travel. Still, Pickering has her yard, the fresh air outside and those three dogs she gets to walk who are blissfully unaware, she says, and still happy about the same things that always made them happy.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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