Cook County to second-home owners: Stay away, for now

Shoreline of Trout Lake.
The shoreline of Trout Lake on in November 2016 near Grand Marais, Minn. Cook County, along the North Shore of Lake Superior, is asking seasonal homeowners to stay away until the threat of the coronavirus passes, citing the remote county’s lack of health care infrastructure and aging population.
Sam Harper for MPR News 2016

The Cook County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a travel advisory at its meeting in Grand Marais, Minn., requesting that seasonal or second homeowners stay home — for the time being.

“Due to our very limited health care infrastructure, please do not visit us now,” the advisory reads.

Health officials for weeks have been raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Across the country, more than 44,000 people have been confirmed to have COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. As of Tuesday, 262 people in Minnesota have tested positive for the disease.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, 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.

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Scientists are still learning about the new disease, but say older people are most vulnerable to COVID-19. More than a quarter of Cook County’s residents are 65 or older, the second highest percentage in the state. In their advisory, county commissioners cited the its aging population.

“It is our priority to keep our older residents healthy and safe,” the advisory stated.

Cook County, which lies at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead region and borders Canada, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters; includes four state parks, the Gunflint Trail, Grand Portage National Monument; and the towns of Lutsen, Tofte and Grand Marais. Tourism makes up more than 80 percent of its economy. So, it did not come easily or naturally for the county’s five commissioners to ask people to stay away.

"Just to be clear, we don't want to tell people not to come here,” said Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk, who introduced the measure. It was modeled after a similar advisory passed last week by Bayfield County in northwestern Wisconsin, another tourism area with an aging population.

“We don't want to have to say, ‘Stay in place,’” Doo-Kirk said. “But we're looking at times that are very different than what we're used to, and we are definitely not used to telling people that we don't want them here."

Commissioners took action after county residents began complaining to them in person and on social media about what they perceived to be an influx of visitors from the Twin Cities and elsewhere — opening up their seasonal homes and staying at resorts, including Lutsen Mountains ski area, which closed for the season on Sunday.

Some even called for a blockade of Minnesota Hwy. 61, the sole artery connecting Duluth with Cook County along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Doo-Kirk said she heard from constituents who fall on both sides of the issue. “There are people saying, ’Thank you so much, people aren’t taking this seriously and the commissioners needed to do this.’”

She also heard from people who are calling the commissioners’ action “silly,” she said, “that we don’t like the seasonal homeowners, and we should be grateful they pay taxes and help us out.”

The advisory is not mandatory — and it’s not legally enforceable, Doo-Kirk stressed. County commissioners haven’t asked the sheriff to stand down at the county line, she said.

“We don’t have the authority, as I understand it, to restrict movement in and out of our county,” said County Attorney Molly Hicken.

Spring is a shoulder season for Cook County’s bustling tourism economy. Still, it’s typically a busy time for downhill skiing at Lutsen, and it’s likely the economy will take a significant hit, as resorts temporarily close and restaurants and bars limit their offerings, according to a new statewide order.

Nonetheless, Jim Boyd, executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, said he wholeheartedly supported the county’s move.

"As much as we love these people, and we need them there, and they’re an important part of our community and economy, right now is not the time for them to be here,” he said.

The county doesn’t have the medical facilities necessary to take care of visitors if they get sick, Boyd said. “Anyone who needs a [ventilator] would have to be moved to Duluth immediately.”

Additionally, he said the grocery stores and other retailers aren’t equipped to supply additional visitors with food and other supplies.

Residents of other rural northern Minnesota counties have also expressed concern about snowbirds and other seasonal homeowners potentially bringing the virus with them. St. Louis County commissioners raised the issue at an emergency board meeting Monday.

Doo-Kirk is adamant that people understand that her region is not anti-tourist, not anti-second homeowner.

“I want it to be clear to people that we're not saying we don’t want you and we don’t like you and we think you’re infested with germs,” she said.

“We want you to be healthy so you can continue to visit here.”

COVID-19 in Minnesota

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 new coronavirus’ rapid spread.

Map: Confirmed cases across the state