Even knowing the risks, some counties want tourists back

Downtown Bemidji
Downtown Bemidji in 2008. As of Thursday, Beltrami County, which includes Bemidji, in northern Minnesota has six COVID-19 cases confirmed.
Tom Robertson | MPR News 2008

The Beltrami County Board isn’t meeting in person these days. It’s doing video calls on Zoom. Everyone’s still getting used to the technology, and Tuesday night’s call was chaotic. 

“At some point, we have to start opening our businesses back up, or we won’t have any businesses to open up,” declared board chair Craig Gaasvig, speaking from his home gym near Bemidji.

“If we don’t allow any travel and keep everything sequestered, all we’re doing is kicking the can down the road,” he said. “That’s why I felt that we should join other counties around us and show the governor that he should start considering us different than the metro.”

Within minutes, the call was hacked — every screen covered with racial slurs and obscene cartoons.  

“Oh my,” said one commissioner. They started a new, private meeting and livestreamed it on Facebook, via Commissioner Reed Olson’s cellphone, which he pointed at his computer screen.  

Gaasvig wanted to send a letter petitioning Gov. Tim Walz to reopen the tourism industry in rural Minnesota. The resolution wasn’t made public until 24 hours before the meeting itself — wasn’t even on the official agenda.  

So far, Beltrami County has only dealt with a handful of COVID-19 cases. Gaasvig conceded that if the local economy were reopened, there would likely be more. But the timing of those cases would be manageable, he said — beneficial, even. 

Sanford Medical Center, he argued, has had plenty of time to prepare for a spike in infections — to lay in the necessary ventilators and masks. And new cases would build up the area’s herd immunity, he said. 

“I don’t know if this will have any positive effect,” he said. “But I thought it was a good way for us to voice our opinion.”

The board disagreed. The measure failed in Beltrami, although nearly identical resolutions were passed in neighboring Clearwater, Hubbard and Becker counties Tuesday.  

The vote was unanimous in Hubbard County, where administrator Eric Nerness said the state’s response to COVID-19 has pushed the region’s single largest industry perilously close to disaster.

“Our county is about 50 to 60 percent a tourism economy,” he said. “These folks have 70 to 90 days to earn their annual revenue.” 

That three-month window starts on the fishing opener, in a little more than two weeks. No one knows what will be open by then. It’s a rural area, and it is not prosperous. Nerness said people are starting to get desperate. 

It’s not clear what prompted this clump of rural counties to take similar actions at the same time. Some county leaders called it an organic groundswell. Others said it started with one particular, conservative commissioner in Clearwater County who tried to recruit much of northwestern Minnesota. That commissioner did not return calls for comment. 

However it began, Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle called the idea misguided.  

“Leadership isn’t about yelling into the wind,” he said. “That’s not going to solve the problem. Passing symbolic resolutions is not going to solve the problem.” 

Crow Wing County has a lot in common with the three counties asking to reopen. It has a much larger, more prosperous population, but it is quite rural, and heavily dependent on tourism. Houle is facing all the same pressures. 

The local Chamber of Commerce is petitioning the governor to consider easing restrictions on tourism. At some point, Houle said, these businesses are going to have to make some money. But most tourists are coming from areas where COVID-19 is much more common. Restarting the tourism economy will entail risk.  

“Leadership is about doing something, and in this case, doing something is figuring out a way that we can safely engage in commerce,” he said. 

He’s working with the chamber, health officials and industry leaders to create a plan to reopen, along with a slew of safety procedures. Once everyone agrees, they’ll bring it to the governor. Without a great plan, Houle said, no one will feel safe enough to leave their homes. 

It was that same thought that caused Beltrami County’s resolution to fail. Before Tuesday’s meeting, perennial swing vote Richard Anderson called a bunch of his constituents. A restaurant owner apparently said that even if he could reopen, he didn’t think anyone would come. They’d be too afraid and he’d lose even more money. Minnesota isn’t ready yet, said the restaurant owner, and the county board agreed.