For Minnesotans fortunate enough to own cabins or second homes in rural parts of the state, the idea of heading to those getaway places likely seems awfully tempting right now.
With the state under a two-week stay-at-home order starting at midnight Friday, people who are working from home, feeling cooped up or just looking for a peaceful refuge to wait out the COVID-19 outbreak might be thinking of packing up and heading out of town for the next few weeks.
Not so fast, say state officials.
During her daily call with reporters Thursday, state health commissioner Jan Malcolm had a message for cabin owners: Stay home.
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“We’ve heard some reports that lots of us are getting into the car and heading to our favorite retreat spots up north or wherever, and we certainly know what an important part of Minnesota culture that is,” she said.
But Malcolm said health care resources in more remote parts of the state don’t have the capacity to absorb large numbers of new cases if many people get sick.
“Just be mindful of the fact that we don’t want to overload those smaller, rural communities at this time,” she said.
Fears that cabin owners would flee the Twin Cities metro area, where dozens of people have tested positive for COVID-19, for northern Minnesota, where until recently, no cases had been confirmed, has been a hot topic of conversation on social media.
“I live in northern MN where the snowbirds, cabin owners and tourists will soon be arriving in droves, and we’re damn concerned about it,” Tim Murphy, a retired steelworker who lives north of Virginia, Minn., tweeted on Wednesday.
Murphy said by phone on Friday that in the spring, cabin owners and tourists start clogging the highways, heading north to fish and enjoy the lakes. He’s worried that those visitors could bring the coronavirus with them.
“I’m sure that the majority of people will take the precautions they should be taking that come up here, but all it takes is a few to bring the virus in,” he said. “And all of a sudden our restaurants will be full of people, and our stores, and our resorts and hotels, and everything. It’s jam-packed up here all summer.”
Stay home, stop the spread?
Minnesota has roughly 112,000 seasonal cabins, according to the state Department of Revenue. Many of those are located in northern or central Minnesota, where the coronavirus is not yet widespread.
As of Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health had reported one positive case of COVID-19 in Beltrami County, one in Cass County and five in St. Louis County.
"Anyone coming into our county from somewhere else risks bringing the virus with them,” St. Louis County board Chairman Mike Jugovich said in a news release Wednesday, after the county’s third positive case was announced.
“That includes people coming to spend time at their cabin or favorite rental getaway spot, and even snowbirds coming home,” Jugovich stated. “Please pause and ask if this is really the best time to travel. We all need to do our part to stop the spread of this virus."
Some local governments, including Cook County in northeastern Minnesota and Ashland and Bayfield counties in northwestern Wisconsin, have already passed travel advisories asking seasonal property owners to stay home during the outbreak.
Crow Wing County, which includes a portion of the popular Brainerd Lakes Area, hasn’t gone that far.
“I think we would like to discourage the behavior,” said Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle. “But I don't think that there's anything that we can really do to prevent it.”
For many snowbirds returning now from warmer climes, their Minnesota property might actually be their primary residence, Houle said. But for those who own cabins in the Brainerd area, Houle said, “we would like you to shelter-in-place where your home is.”
“It's not just a cause for concern for the local residents who live here,” he said. “It should also be a cause for concern for the people who travel here, thinking that they're going to be safer here than they would be in, say, the Twin Cities metropolitan area.”
Houle said there’s concern that hospitals in rural Minnesota wouldn’t be able to handle large numbers of COVID-19 cases if the virus continues to spread.
While Crow Wing County has three hospitals within easy access — in Brainerd, Staples and Crosby — others aren’t as lucky, and many have aging populations at higher risk from the coronavirus, he said. Nearby Aitkin County, where almost a quarter of the population is over age 70, has just four ICU beds, Houle said.
“That’s going to be a really difficult thing to handle,” he said.
The challenge for rural hospitals
Rural hospitals have different challenges than larger facilities in metro areas, said Pat DeLong, chief nursing officer of Duluth-based Essentia Health’s central region. The health care provider operates hospitals and clinics in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Idaho.
DeLong said Essentia and other health care providers are working to make sure they have enough staff, beds and medical supplies for when the COVID-19 outbreak reaches their regions. She said they are factoring in the possibility of an early seasonal population swell, which usually doesn’t happen until around the opening of fishing season in mid-May.
“It seems that that's happening earlier this year,” DeLong said. “Folks who have a cabin are saying, ‘Let's get up there early,’ which we certainly understand … We don't know the exact number, but we are taking it into account.”
DeLong said Essentia, like other Minnesota health care providers, is working to ramp the number of beds, ventilators and other equipment available to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients.
Many of the snowbirds who start returning to Minnesota from places like Arizona and Florida in April or May are elderly, and may have more chronic health conditions that would put them at higher risk for serious cases of COVID-19, DeLong said.
Cass County, which lies north and west of Brainerd, has one of the highest numbers of seasonal properties in Minnesota. More than half of its property tax statements are mailed to ZIP codes outside of the county, said Neal Gaalswyk, county board chairman.
Gaalswyk said it’s been relatively easy to shelter in place in his rural, isolated home, and he sees why that might appeal to many cabin owners.
“People who want to get out of a crowded city environment and come up and enjoy that same thing if they have property up here — I can see where they would want to do that,” he said. “Of course, the issue is that each time we move around, we are potentially bringing the virus to people who have not been exposed to it.”
Gaalswyk said area hospitals are equipped to handle the usual health care needs of the region into the summer months, when Cass County’s population doubles. But in the event of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19, they could quickly get overloaded, he said.
Still, Gaalswyk and other local officials are reluctant to tell seasonal residents to stay away altogether. Along with tourists staying at resorts and hotels, they help drive the area’s economy, keeping restaurants, grocery stores, bait shops and other businesses afloat. Many large resorts and other local businesses have had to lay off staff, as people have canceled reservations and restaurants, bars and spas have been forced to close.
“On the other hand, how are people going to buy groceries if folks don't come up here and enjoy this part of the state?” Gaalswyk said.
The Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, is not encouraging people to travel up north, said Matt Kilian, the chamber’s president.
“But in the same breath, we’re not discouraging travel either,” he said. “Every family’s going to have to make that decision on their own.”
Kilian noted that seasonal property owners pay taxes and support local businesses and the community in a variety of ways, so it’s difficult to tell them to stay away.
“As long as they come up and practice all the social distancing and public safety recommendations, we’re certainly not going to send the message to our friends that they’re not welcome here,” Kilian said.
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.