‘It’s been rough’: Kemah business owners fear closure amid slow tourist season due to COVID-19

Business owners in Kemah are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as summer 2020 sales lag far behind previous years. (Graphic by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)
Business owners in Kemah are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as summer 2020 sales lag far behind previous years. (Graphic by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)

Business owners in Kemah are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic as summer 2020 sales lag far behind previous years. (Graphic by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)

In Kemah, newer and established businesses alike fear having to close their doors for good as the local tourism industry suffers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Courtney Sapp, owner of Escape Kemah on Bradford Avenue, said the business is down 80% in sales as compared to this time last year. The escape room was closed for eight to 10 weeks in the spring and reopened with Phase 1 businesses, but area residents have been reluctant to patronize the escape rooms, she said.

“It’s been rough,” Sapp said. “People were kind of scared to get back out and head [toward the boardwalk].”

For Sapp and her family, Escape Kemah is the main source of income, and the business is helping Sapp put her two kids through college. The family opened the business about five years ago, and they make the puzzles in the escape room themselves.

While Escape Kemah typically gives back to local sports teams and school districts, waning business means they have had to cut back on donations, which Sapp said was a difficult choice to make.

“We’re on our last leg, so it’s so hard to have to say that,” she said. “We’re just trying to make it as long as we can.”

Once the Kemah Boardwalk opened up, business got better, but the closure of bars at the end of June triggered another slowdown, Sapp said. They tried, without much success, to adapt the escape room model to include online games, she added.

Escape Kemah is offering group bookings only—four people for $100—so that customers only share rooms with people they know, and the rooms are sanitized before and after each group. Customers can also bring their own alcohol. Prior to the pandemic, booking a full escape room costs $275.

“At least we’re able to make some money, but it’s still seen as a loss,” Sapp said. “That’s what we’re having to do just to keep the doors open right now.”

She said she is not optimistic Escape Kemah will be able to stay open for longer than two to three more months. Sapp encouraged Bay Area residents to shop local whenever they can to help save small businesses.

“Kemah’s strong, and everybody’s trying to stick together and help each other out. ... Just know that shopping local really helps,” she said.

Sandra Williams, who owns the Boardwalk Fudge shop just a block from Escape Kemah, agreed with Sapp.

“All the businesses here in Kemah are experiencing the same thing,” she said.

Boardwalk Fudge was closed for much of March and the first part of April, Williams said, and the shop took special cake and pie orders during that time. Sales this season have been largely from locals, with much less tourism than in previous years, she said.

The fudge shop is the oldest store in Kemah, having been open 30 years, Williams said. As with Sapp's store, Williams said, business picked up when bars reopened but has since slowed with bars being closed once more.

July has been especially slow, and Williams is unsure whether Boardwalk Fudge will be able to survive much longer.

“We’re a small business, and right now we’re not even making our bills,” she said. “How long I’m going to be able to hang on, I don’t know, because this has already taken its toll on us.”

By Colleen Ferguson
A native central New Yorker, Colleen Ferguson worked as an editorial intern with the Cy-Fair and Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood editions of Community Impact before joining the Bay Area team in 2020. Colleen graduated from Syracuse University in 2019, where she worked for the campus's independent student newspaper The Daily Orange, with a degree in Newspaper and Online Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a degree in Spanish language and culture. Colleen previously interned with The Journal News/lohud, where she covered the commute in the greater New York City area.



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