Every year until the pandemic, around 300,000 J-1 visa holders came to the U.S. to work and study.
In the summer, local businesses from Door County, Wisconsin, to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, depend on hiring students from the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program — which is now plagued by delays and cancellations because of COVID-19.
Kaisy's Delights in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, hires about six J-1 workers each summer, owner Thierry Langer says. This year, the need for workers will depend on whether the Austro-Hungarian cafe sees its usual summer season.
“This year, we have no clue. We have no idea what the summer is going to be like,” he says. “We don't know if we need the J-1 students, but if we have a season, then we need them badly.”
Now, Kaisy's Delights is open for takeout and delivery. Langer says he doesn’t know whether Rehoboth Beach will open this summer.
While Rehoboth Beach is closed to the public, nearby beaches have different rules. In his town of Lewes, Delaware, people can exercise on the beach. And Ocean City, Maryland, opened its beaches last weekend.
“Everything is changing every day,” he says.
Before the coronavirus crisis, Langer was in the midst of interviewing and hiring J-1 students for the summer. Two candidates were supposed to have visa interviews on April 30 but that hasn’t happened, he says.
If he’s able to hire students through the visa, he doesn’t know how the coronavirus pandemic will impact their travel or lodging. Students typically rent rooms with four to six bunk beds from private owners, and Langer questions whether this arrangement allows for adequate social distancing.
Students live in crowded rooms in exchange for the chance to work in the U.S., but locals aren’t quite as willing. Kaisy's Delights would love to hire local residents for the summer, he says, but efforts to do so have failed for years.
Locals don’t want to deal with finding parking and lodging in the area — so J-1 students come in to fill the gap, he says.
“It is true that this year might be different, but we've been trying that forever,” he says. “Locals just do not want to come and work in Rehoboth Beach.”
Langer predicts he’ll see fewer customers this summer season compared to last year. The business can operate without J-1 students, but customers will have to wait in lines, he says.
Kaisy's Delights can survive even if the beach doesn’t reopen because of its two other locations that aren’t affected by the crisis, he says. One location has a drive-thru, while the other is on a hospital campus.
“My business can survive without Rehoboth,” he says. “But those who have their business focused around Rehoboth, if there is no summer season, I don't know what's going to happen. It's going to be terrible in the autumn.”
For seasonal businesses like Kaisy's Delights in Rehoboth, dealing with a huge surge of demand in the summer and a lull in the winter isn’t new. This cycle prepared business owners like Langer for the coronavirus crisis in a way year-round businesses were not, he says.
Now in May, Kaisy's Delights is operating the same way it would in January, he says. But like his business, his rent is also seasonal: He pays a higher rate during the usually busy summer months.
“If the month of August is going to be just like now — just like the month of January — then I will have to talk with my landlord,” he says.
This segment aired on May 11, 2020.