Across the country, a growing number of Americans are receiving their COVID-19 vaccine. The highly anticipated shot’s increasing availability is making it safer and more possible for some people to travel to Asheville and the surrounding communities.
The recent surge in tourism is good news for small businesses seeking to stay afloat during the uncertain economic times the pandemic has produced, but concerning for some locals who are not yet comfortable with business as usual.
Shelby Schutter, a recent recipient of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, said she is thankful to be able to visit one of her favorite destinations again under safer circumstances.
“I’ve been coming down to Asheville for years now and the pandemic has prevented me from doing that. It’s so nice to be back,” she said.
She continued, saying one reason for her increased precautions is the genetic condition she suffers from, leaving her immunocompromised. Recently, Schutter was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, causing prolonged fatigue and chronic joint pain among other symptoms.
“For the past year really, I haven’t really left my house. I’m still getting used to being around people. It’s strange even having this conversation,” Schutter said.
Like the millions of Americans living with immunodeficiencies, the past year has been a real challenge for Schutter. The vaccine, as she explained it, is “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
She said that although the vaccine is exciting, she is still taking precautions to prevent any potential spread.
“Vaccinated or not, I’m gonna be wearing my mask. I keep the hand sanitizer going 24/7, but I can do it with a little more peace now,” she said “I want to be considerate because I know not everyone has had the shot like we have.”
North Carolina is currently providing vaccinations to those who qualify for group 4 of the distribution. According to AARP, individuals described as being ages 16 through 64 with a high risk of contracting the disease are now eligible. While distribution is moving quickly, thousands of North Carolinians remain unvaccinated.
While the vaccine is presenting promising results, there is still concern held throughout the western North Carolina community surrounding the increase in tourism. With the rise of people coming to the area, many locals fear the market will continue to move in the direction of primarily catering to tourists.
City officials have taken some steps to address the concerns, but many local Ashevillians view the changes as performative. On Feb. 23, the city of Asheville ended a 17-month moratorium on new hotel permits. The moratorium came as a result of increased complaints from constituents frustrated by the massively tourist-centric nature of the town.
Many members of the Asheville community think the city has priorities elsewhere when it comes to infrastructure development. Critics of tourism development, like Arahna Rogers, a server at multiple downtown tourist hotspots, point to a “desperate need” for affordable housing within Buncombe County.
“The amount of homeless people in our community has become staggering. Where’s the concern about that? Seems like they’ll do anything but actually fix the problems,” Rogers said.
She continued to explain that many of the city’s problems coincide with Asheville’s reliance on the tourism industry.
“I get that money drives everything, but you would think something like repairing screwed up roads and getting people off the street would come before another fancy hotel development project,” she said.
While an influx in tourism means further disregard for some of those living without a home in the community, for others, such as Jon Stone, who is homeless, having people around means he is able to provide himself some of his most basic needs.
“When you rely on tips to eat, tourists aren’t such a bad thing,” he said.
On most weekends, Stone can be found somewhere within the downtown Asheville area with his ukulele, playing and entertaining the bustling streets. Playing music is an outlet he has grown thankful for, as it has pulled him from some of his darkest times.
“I’ve never really had much but the power to create something beautiful. Keeps me going,” Stone said. “It’s medicine really.”
Stone, like hundreds throughout the community, faces uncertainty in housing every day. Without the promise of secure affordable housing, a job, or mental and physical health services, the potential to overcome situations like homelessness can become nearly impossible.
COVID-19 left those reliant on tips and donations in a bind throughout the pandemic. Stone said he’s not the only one who suffered.
“I’m not the only one out here doing this. I got friends from all over the place out here. We could make like 70 or something bucks a day playing, easy. These streets have been dead for a while,” he said.