For Minnesotans and tourists around the nation, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area has long been a traditional summer staple of escapism from the city lights and punching a time clock in exchange for a campfire and canoe trip through the serene setting of the Northwoods.
But as the snow and ice melted off the grounds near Ely — a time when resorts and outfitters are generally gearing up for one of the region’s largest tourist attractions — it felt like summer would never come.
The coronavirus pandemic descended on Minnesota in early March and steadily increased its grip on the state, forcing the closure or reduction in operations for many businesses, prompting the executive orders by Gov. Tim Walz that eventually led to the U.S. Forest Service closing the Boundary Waters in mid-April.
“We were just dying here,” said Blayne Hall, owner of Williams and Hall Outfitters in Ely, in a phone interview Saturday. “As soon as this thing happened, the phones just died. When it was ordered closed, that was even worse.”
At a time when escaping reality was a high priority, especially for locals like Hall trying to get outdoors close to home in northeastern Minnesota, finding the escape was proving difficult until last week. That was when Walz announced Wednesday that he would let his stay-at-home order expire Sunday night and replace it with a “stay safe” order. On Friday, the USFS followed suit and opened the Boundary Waters beginning Monday.
The tide turned quickly for Hall after the governor announced his latest order. He’s already received nine new reservations in recent days, a rate exceeding a typical week for the outfitter, and the once-dead phones have woken up to people clarifying that their trips are still allowed to go on as planned.
Hall said the original closure lacked common sense, citing the vast acreage of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and his belief people could act responsibly within it. His usual crew of 12 employees to start the season is down to four, but without concerts and sporting events, he’s hoping the outfitters see the same rate of tourists that visited local golf courses and purchased state fishing licences in recent weeks.
“We’re hoping there’s some pent-up demand out there,” he said. “We’re hoping there’s a lot of people who have had enough and realize this incredible opportunity to do something they can do safely and not have to think twice about whether there’s any concerns here.”
Ely Mayor Chuck Novak said Saturday that the region’s resort owners are beginning to book up for the summer and the city is working on signage to place at its entrances to encourage tourists to use caution and act safely.
Novak said he’s encouraging people to visit Ely, a 3,356 population city just south of the U.S.-Canada border, which relies heavily on tourism as its economic engine.
The mayor said he’s concerned, but not worried about a potential outbreak caused by an influx of tourists, despite statewide numbers showing more than 36 percent of the 14,969 confirmed cases contracted COVID-19 from an unknown source.
Residents of the Twin Cities metro region account for a large percentage of visitors to the Boundary Waters and also rank among the highest counties in the state in terms of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Minnesota Department of Health officials on Saturday reported 4,930 cases of the coronavirus in Hennepin County, while Ramsey County accounted for 1,416 cases. St. Louis County has 101 confirmed cases. Ely has one known case of COVID-19 from an employee at the local Dairy Queen, where 15 other employees tested negative for the virus, according to the Ely Echo.
“I think everyone has been well-educated around the country,” Novak said. “I’m encouraging people to come up. I encourage them to use caution, be safe and be healthy.”
How businesses and economies reopen amid the coronavirus outbreak and executive orders by the Walz administration has been a source of contention and controversy in Greater Minnesota and among small business owners.
Large retailers like Target, Menards and Walmart were deemed essential by the original stay-at-home order in March and allowed to operate with few restrictions, but smaller retailers that largely makeup local downtowns were considered non-essential and shuttered. Under the new stay safe order, many of them can now reopen Monday at half capacity with social distancing measures in place, but hair salons and spas remain closed, and bars and restaurants are still closed to dine-in services.
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman on Tuesday announced a selection committee of lawmakers to help the state’s response to the coronavirus, which she said will include the opportunity to address businesses, schools and regions like the Iron Range and border communities.
State Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora was appointed to the committee and met with Walz on Saturday about the challenges facing the Range. He applauded the governor’s overall virus response, including his new order, and hopes the House committee can help guide the state’s response with a more nuanced approach.
In a text Saturday, Lislegard acknowledged the different directions the governor is being pulled, said Walz is listening, and said he believes “we will continue to see more businesses open up in the coming weeks, all while putting the public’s best interests and safety at the forefront.”
After the stay safe order was announced, he said through a statement that he’s “confident the administration will continue to work and find the right roadmap for the remaining businesses and places of worship to open their doors soon, and safely.”
In Eveleth, where four bars, a hair salon and a tattoo parlor account for about half of the businesses on the city’s main drag, officials heard the outline of a plan that could lead to a city-enforced reopening of its downtown.
The city council met for a workshop last week to discuss how the Walz executive orders are impacting local business, a topic Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich first publicly breached at the council’s May 5 meeting. Vlaisavljevich said the state’s “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t giving small businesses a fair chance and that he was going to develop a comprehensive plan for Eveleth to reopen with social distancing and safety guidelines in mind.
Eveleth officials previously approved a city-funded bridge loan to local businesses impacted by COVID-19, that have either closed, partially closed or are awaiting state and federal funding.
“Everyone is making sacrifices. I’m not seeing fairness in the sacrifices,” Vlaisavljevich said on May 5, adding that the stress on unemployed workers and business owners are creating public health concerns.
“I made a pledge to do that, and I can’t, if I follow these guidelines, fulfill my promise to the people in these communities,” continued Vlaisavljevich, referencing his oath of office. “There’s going to be nothing here.”
On Tuesday, the city council is set to discuss a “Resolution Constitutional and Business Friendly Community” agenda item.