Coronavirus spread in Minnesota forces North Shore resort owners to make tough decisions

Wind and waves lash the shoreline of Split Rock State Park April 11, 2019
Wind and waves lash the shoreline of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on April 11, 2019, as a strong spring storm reached Minnesota's North Shore.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

Updated: 5 p.m.

Minnesota is in the midst of a coronavirus-induced exercise in distancing. Schools are temporarily closed. University students are learning remotely. The bars and restaurants still open are offering takeout-only meals. Gyms, yoga studios and other places where people gather are temporarily shuttered. Many employers are asking their staff to work from home.

As of Saturday afternoon, Minnesota officials had announced 137 confirmed cases of the disease in the state — mostly concentrated around the Twin Cities metro area and the southeastern quadrant of the state. And all of those measures are part of the state’s ongoing attempts to curb the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19.

But some tourists are still driving up the North Shore of Lake Superior to ski and sight-see — and others are flocking to their cabins and second homes in the region. That’s prompted some full-time residents of the Arrowhead region to urge people from the Twin Cities and elsewhere not to visit, out of fear they may inadvertently bring the new coronavirus with them.

Some on social media have even suggested a blockade of state Highway 61, the thoroughfare that links Duluth with Lutsen, Grand Marais and other North Shore towns.

Those fears, in a part of the state where there hasn’t yet been a confirmed coronavirus case, have put local officials and business leaders in a tough spot. Northeastern Minnesota relies on tourists and seasonal homeowners — many of them from places where coronavirus cases have already been identified — to drive more than 80 percent of the region’s economy.

At the center of the concerns is a decision by the Lutsen Mountains ski area to remain open one final weekend. The resort plans to close at the end of the day Sunday.

“Right now, the ski hill is doing a disservice to Cook County and to Minnesota,” said Tom Spence, a photographer from nearby Tofte who has taken to Facebook to encourage his thousands of followers to refrain from traveling to the North Shore until the threat of COVID-19 subsides.

Spence said he’s worked at Lutsen in the past, and praised the resort’s owners, calling them “great people.” He also acknowledged the pivotal economic role the resort plays in the region.

“But they’re doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons by keeping this place open” through Sunday, he said.

Lutsen officials say they’ve complied with state and federal guidelines and taken steps to prevent potential spread of the virus, including encouraging social distancing on the ski slopes, and urging family groups to stay together on lifts.

The resort has closed bars and restaurants in compliance with the state’s orders, and has also closed all other indoor spaces, except for bathrooms.

“Each decision has been very deliberate and planned,” said marketing director Jim Vick. “We appreciate others may come to different conclusions on the actions we have decided,” he said, adding that critics have failed to acknowledge the steps they’ve taken to comply with state guidelines.

Other nearby businesses have taken a different approach.

Cascade Vacation Rentals, which manages more than 175 rental properties along the North Shore — from cabins in the woods to luxurious homes along Lake Superior — decided Monday to not take any new reservations through the end of April.

Then, after listening to Gov. Tim Walz’s news conference on Wednesday, co-owner Mike Larson said Cascade made the decision to accelerate their plans, and not only not book new reservations, but also cancel existing ones — beginning the very next day.

Larson said the company reached some customers in their cars, already on their way to their rental homes. While they were disappointed, Larson said, they unequivocally supported Cascade’s decision.

And though he acknowledges the move could be crippling to his business, Larson said it was an easy decision to make from a broader community perspective: to prevent visitors from potentially over-taxing local health care providers, who are already stretched thin in the Arrowhead region’s small, rural communities.

Bluefin Bay, a large family of resorts on the North Shore in Lutsen and Tofte, opted to close its properties by the end of March. CEO Dennis Rysdahl said the company needs time to coordinate with 120 owner-partners who own rental properties at the resorts, and also is working to coordinate unemployment benefits for many of its 90 year-round employees who will either be laid off or cut back to part-time work.

Rysdahl said the resort is already making plans to repurpose its restaurant to provide free meals to employees and their family members.

“We're trying to figure out how we can best take care of everyone over a four- to six-month horizon, and precipitously shutting the door tomorrow doesn't give us time to do that,” he said.

Those varying approaches among different tourism-related businesses are reflected in the nuanced stance taken by Visit Cook County, a collaboration of tourism associations in northeast Minnesota that does destination marketing for the region.

Executive director Linda Jurek said Visit Cook County has stopped doing social media marketing. But she said the organization also has to be prepared to reach out to visitors again at a moment’s notice.

“We’re not actively saying, ‘Hey, come up here now and watch the waterfalls in April,’” she said. “That’s not anything we’re actively doing, which is something we would normally do in years past. But we certainly don’t want people to forget about us, either.”

Instead, they’re trying to get creative, asking people to share pictures and stories of their experiences along the North Shore on social media.

Those efforts aren't enough for critics like Tom Spence, who believes local officials should be actively telling potential visitors to stay away from Cook County until the public health crisis wanes.

The North Shore is like a funnel, he said. The tourists “stop in the same stores, touch all the same stuff. They head to the next town, stop at the next store, touch all the same stuff.”

He also said those visitors are making it hard for local residents to buy essentials like toilet paper. He said he also hasn’t been able to buy the masks he needs to cut and install drywall in his carpentry work. “The pressure we’re getting is unnecessary,” he said.

Jim Boyd, who directs the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, said he’s heard anecdotally, from retailers and others in the region, that vacation homeowners are “escaping the cities” and coming up north to their second homes.

Boyd says angry posts on social media telling people not to come, or to block Highway 61, aren’t going to stop people from coming.

“What we have to do is ensure that our response to them is gracious and welcoming, because they're human beings,” he said. “And we can't let the feeling that they shouldn't be here get out of hand.”

Boyd fears the situation is going to last a lot longer than a lot of people realize. He said it’s easy to scapegoat businesses who want to remain open. He said he’s also concerned about workers in Cook County, many of whom piece together two or three jobs to make a living.

“How will we take care of them moving forward? It’s really rough,” he said. “And so it’s a real balancing act.”

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

Map: Confirmed cases across the state

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