Punxsutawney Phil's town misses Groundhog Day boost

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Groundhog Club handler A.J. Dereume holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 135th celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Phil's handlers said that the groundhog has forecast six more weeks of winter weather during this year's event that was held without anyone in attendance due to potential COVID-19 risks. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Punxsutawney Phil returned to his burrow one day after he saw his shadow and predicted another six weeks of winter. But residents and merchants in the tiny Pennsylvania town that Phil put on the map are hoping the coronavirus pandemic does not continue to cast its shadow over the next Groundhog Day.

This year's virtual Groundhog Day event left the community, which is about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northeast of Pittsburgh, without its annual economic boost from visitors who spend money on lodging, food, beverages and souvenirs.

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“There was hardly anyone,” said Mayor Richard Alexander. “The economic impact was really bad.”

The mayor said the community of roughly 6,000 residents swells with between 10,000 to 15,000 tourists on Groundhog Day. When it occurs on a weekend, the number balloons to as many as 40,000, he said.

“On a normal Groundhog Day, there are so many festivities and the businesses and restaurants are inundated,” the Republican said. “None of that happened this year.”

Alexander has lived in the town for about 50 years and has served as mayor for eight of those .

The mayor believes Phil's popularity drives tourism along with the 1993 movie, “Groundhog Day.” He said visitors want to compare the real Punxsutawney with the Illinois locations used in the film.

Tourists can see Phil and his female companion, Phyllis, in their environmentally controlled natural habitat in the town's library. Groundhog statues are scattered throughout the community and the name of the nation's most famous prognosticator is everywhere to be seen.

After the pandemic spread and restrictions were imposed on businesses and gatherings, organizers decided to go virtual for the 135th time that Phil would offer his prediction.

Tuesday's livestream from Gobbler’s Knob, the tiny hill just outside Punxsutawney, was made possible by the Pennsylvania Tourism Office’s Holi-stay PA and had more than 15,000 viewers worldwide at one point.

Phil was not without some kind of audience though. About 150 cardboard cutouts of fans were there to “watch.”

Officials would not put a dollar amount on the lost revenue.

"It was slow, but we expected that because it's been slow since March and it was no different," said Katie Laska, who owns Laska's Pizza, which has been in business since 1987. She is also president of the town's Chamber of Commerce.

She said Groundhog Day typically gives local merchants a boost at a time of year when tourism is usually slow.

Groundhog Day has its origin in a German legend about a furry rodent. Records dating to the late 1800s show Phil has predicted longer winters more than 100 times. The 2020 forecast called for an early spring — however, Phil didn’t say anything about a pandemic.

“For places that sell souvenirs, it’s like the Christmas holiday for their merchandise. They took a hit, but some did see online sales,” Laska said.

Laska said no merchants have gone out of business during the pandemic. She is optimistic visitors will return for the Chamber of Commerce's festival in the park during the last week in June.

Mayor Alexander says he is eager to get back to a pre-pandemic functionality.

“My hope around here is to get back to some degree of normalcy,” he said.

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