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Coronavirus means an uncertain future for businesses and cities that depend on yearly black events

“It's just a crazy period right now. It totally devastated my business. I mean, I'm making no money. I mean, not a dime.”
Image: Keith Jones
Cruise organizer Keith Jones's operation is in limbo due to coronavirus restrictions.Courtesy of Keith Jones

For two decades, South Florida entrepreneur Keith Jones has made a living entertaining vacationers on land and sea, through his Grown & Sexy cruises and concerts in the sun.

These days, the only land Jones sees is the patch outside his home or the asphalt between home and Home Depot.

Like backers of some of the most popular events on this year’s social calendar, Jones has seen his efforts to host hundreds thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant mandates for lockdowns and social distancing.

Jones typically operates 3 cruises a year, including the Grown and Sexy Cruise.Courtesy of Keith Jones

As politicians and epidemiologists debate the proper time and shape for reopening the country, Jones, the retired radio host Tom Joyner, and the backers of events, including the popular Essence music festival and the American Black Film Festival, are in a quandary.

Some hope a reprieve will come with the autumn leaves. Others have said, “see you next year.”

For Jones, who has events scheduled in the fall and next year, there’s at least $2 million hanging in the balance.

“Everything's just thrown up in the air,” said Jones, known as “Super Lover KJ” to his former Florida radio fans. “It's just a crazy period right now. It's totally devastated my business. I mean, I'm making no money. I mean, not a dime.”

A check of some of the most popular draws with African Americans found nearly every organizer scrambling to regroup.

Essence’s music festival, the Festival of Culture, had been scheduled for Fourth of July weekend at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. In April, officials said they would drop the 2020 live experience.

Instead, a virtual event is planned for the same holiday weekend and work has begun to return to New Orleans in 2021, according to festival organizers.

Organizers have offered to refund all tickets sold for this year’s event.

Seeking a refund is also on the minds of several would-be travelers who purchased cabins on the 2020 Tom Joyner Foundation Fantastic Voyage, which had been set for March 28 to April 5.

“Because of COVID-19, the Joyner organization decided to postpone this year’s Fantastic Voyage, scheduled to sail aboard Carnival Magic,” Vance Gulliksen, Carnival Cruise Line’s spokesman told NBC News. That decision came March 12, the day before Carnival announced its voluntary suspension of operations.

Joyner’s organization has “not asked for a refund, but instead requested to apply the funds to the new sailing date,” Gulliksen said, adding that the trip had been paid in full.

That puts travelers like Shiellynn Cullin of suburban Atlanta in a bind. Her travel plans for next year are set and can’t be changed to accommodate the postponed cruise, she said.

“A credit would do me no good,” said Cullin, who already paid $3,500 for her share of a balcony cabin. “It’s disturbing that we’re not given an option of a refund. You’re either going to sail with them or lose $3,500.”

Once the new Fantastic Voyage dates are announced, “any guests who opt not to sail are welcome to contact the Joyner organization … to discuss their cancellation options,” Gulliksen said.

Julia Atherton, a Tom Joyner Foundation board member, said the organization would not comment beyond a statement on the cruise website.

That leaves Cullin, and other consumers who voiced their frustration on social media, still looking for answers.

“It’s very frustrating,” Cullin added. “It’s a hardship on us.”

Nicole Friday attends the 13th Annual Essence Black Women In Hollywood Awards Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on Feb. 6, 2020 in Beverly Hills, Calif.David Livingston / Getty Images file

Nicole Friday and her husband, Jeff, operate Los Angeles-based ABFF Ventures, which hosts the annual American Black Film Festival.

Initially this year's event, which can attract up to 10,000 people, was dislodged from its annual June perch and rescheduled as an in-person festival Oct. 21 in Miami Beach. On Thursday, organizers announced that the festival instead will be a virtual event held online August 21 to 30, atabff.com.

A spokeswoman said the film festival is going virtual "for safety reasons as we are still in the middle of a pandemic."

The ABFF Online Edition still will feature independent black films, studio premieres, panel discussions and "business of entertainment" seminars, along with virtual networking events, according to a news release.

"First and foremost we want to make sure that everyone is safe and make sure that our staff is safe and make sure that attendees are safe and make sure that the sponsors are all safe," said Nicole Friday in an earlier interview.

Jeff Friday said in a statement, "We will persevere through this year and end up a stronger community on the other side of this crisis." Additional information was not immediately available. The announcement came as states began loosening lockdowns, but as the number of coronavirus cases continued to grow.

Once restrictions on gatherings ease, all phases of the travel and entertainment industries will have to work hard to reassure a jittery public.

“They can’t just go back to business as normal. People are too frightened,” said Solomon Herbert, publisher and co-owner of the online magazine Black Meetings & Tourism.

“People who are considered vulnerable, people in a certain age group, people with underlying conditions will be real sensitive about where they go and what risk they’re going to put themselves at,” he said.

Jones, the Florida entrepreneur, has a foot in both camps. He said he has high blood pressure, one of several risk factors for severe symptoms if infected with the coronavirus, which has hit African Americans especially hard.

So he understands that some consumers will be reticent to mingle again in large groups.

“If they just opened up the doors in West Palm Beach tomorrow and said ‘Hey, everybody could start going back out to the clubs and bars again,’ they may be open, but especially black people, we ain’t going nowhere,” Jones, 52, said. “Not me, Jack. No way.”

On the flip side, he has at least $2 million in consumer deposits on hold with cruise lines. That creates an issue if the ships don’t sail.

Jones’s company sponsors three cruises a year along with concerts and parties. The largest cruise is the annual Grown & Sexy cruise, which this year happened during Super Bowl weekend, Feb. 1 and 2. The Vibe cruise on Royal Caribbean generally is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.

The smaller Boo cruise aboard the Bahamas Paradise Grand Classica is held during the closest weekend to Halloween.

The Vibe cruise, which was scheduled for May 22 to May 25, has been rescheduled for next year.

Also canceled were parties Jones had planned to coincide with a large jazz festival in Miami Gardens that was canceled.

Jones recently got some good news: A planned plane trip to Negril, Jamaica, called Hedonism II that’s set for Sept. 3 is now "a go." That trip will mark the "restart" of his main travel business, he said.

Jones said he's encouraged that the business downturn "hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be."

But he's not taking a victory lap just yet.

"I've lost a lot of income with all the cancels, but I definitely can see the business coming back, but it will take a long time," he said. "People are now asking me to [put] together a resort weekend in the states."

He's now working with a Miami Beach hotel on a potential Grown & Sexy weekend in July. Is he concerned about a possible coronavirus resurgence in the fall?

"Yes of course," he said. "But I'm banking on better protocols in travel by then, where it isn't as much of a risk. You see the cases [in some states] are surging now, but people seem to be getting over the shock and going on with life. A lot of people are feeling they can move around again. "

Karen Robinson-Jacobs is a former editor and reporter with The Los Angeles Times. She is currently based in Texas.