By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - Fans with Masters tickets may be disappointed that this year's tournament is being played without spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but spare a thought for how local businesses are coping.
A city that normally buzzes during Masters week as thousands of visitors open their wallets and spend freely in hotels, restaurants and well beyond the hospitality industry, is this year going about its business much as it does in any other week.
Many hotels that normally sell out almost a year in advance for Masters week still have rooms available this weekend, at much the normal rate.
Private houses that are usually rented to visitors for thousands of dollars have had to give full refunds.
Washington Road, a major commercial thoroughfare that runs past the entrance to Augusta National's Magnolia Lane, is frequently locked in gridlock during the Masters.
On Wednesday, on the eve of the first round, there was only a fraction of the normal traffic.
Vehicles whizzed by at normal speeds, and most of the parking lots next to the course were empty, a few pine trees standing sentinel in wide open fields almost as far as the eye could see.
Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Bennish Brown said the absence of fans affected just about every part of the local economy.
"Some people make their annual mortgage (by renting out their house) during Masters week," Brown told Reuters.
"As residents are preparing their home for the Masters they are using local home improvement companies, landscapers, so there is such a ripple effect beyond the hospitality industry.
"Restaurants are also doing catering. The Masters is like a 13th month of revenue for many businesses, wrapped up within a single week."
According to Brown, the city usually collects three times as much hotel tax revenue in April as other months, all thanks to the Masters boost.
At one hotel near the course, the Staybridge Suites, the manager said Masters week usually accounted for about 17% of annual revenue.
"There are 5000 rooms in this town," Jugal Purohit told Reuters. "A handful of hotels may be running very high occupancy, but otherwise the whole town is running just like a normal week, with maybe a little spike."
2021 MASTERS UNCERTAINTY
As if the financial hit of a one-off Masters without fans is not bad enough for business, there is no guarantee spectators will be back next April.
Masters chairman Fred Ridley on Wednesday left open the possibility of fans returning, but made no promises.
"I'm hopeful that we will see improved conditions regarding this virus, but April is less than five months away, so there's certainly no assurance of that," he said.
Hotel manager Purohit said his establishment was already 60% booked for the next Masters, mainly by international visitors who cancelled their trip this year.
Yet his hotel has stopped taking further reservations for 2021 Masters week until there is clarity on whether fans will be allowed back.
"We do not want to take reservations, collect the money and then give money back," he said. "It's too much hassle."
Visitors Bureau CEO Brown, meanwhile, is braced for the inevitable financial hit the city faces when this week's numbers are crunched.
"We know there is going to be tremendous economic impact," he said. "We just won't know how much that will be until it's over."
(Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Toby Davis)