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Northern Michigan stores scramble to greet tourists. Well, some stores.

Dave and Reneé Sibert enjoy breakfast outside at the Omelette Shoppe on Friday morning in Traverse City with their maltese puppy Remi. Coming from West Bloomfield, they opted to visit Traverse City over Memorial Day weekend instead of their usual trip to Florida to avoid flying.  (Bridge photo by Alexandra Schmidt)

TRAVERSE CITY—Northern Michigan’s happy to be open for business. 

The jury’s still out on whether residents are happy about the tourists who will fill their stores.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday that restaurants and bars in the state’s northernmost counties, less impacted by COVID-19 than regions like metro Detroit, could reopen — at 50 percent capacity — giving them just days to comply with meticulous safety rules. Retailers were told they too could open, but with limits on customers and markings to ensure physical separation.   

By the weekend, the Baker family from Marcellus was in Traverse City playing socially-distant, putt putt golf and grabbing dinner to go from a food truck. Down the street, Kirsten Boelkinn, a local resident, drank on an outdoor patio with friends she hadn’t seen in months. Groups of tourists skipped masks on the street, but most everyone donned one before entering the reduced capacity stores to weave along masking tape thoroughfares and masked employees. 

In Petoskey, meanwhile, a prominent hospitality chain has decided that the governor’s executive order restricting hotel rooms to essential workers includes...ordinary tourists. And it wasn’t the only one.   

State Theater
Bridge photo by John Russell
Not everyone is overjoyed to see the region reopen. The State Theater in Traverse City left a blunt message seemingly directed at out-of-town visitors.

But commingled with the joy of reopening for summer was a lingering worry that the coronavirus might be flowing alongside the money.

“Our economy needs it up here,” said Sean Kickbush, owner of BrewTC. “I think we jumped the gun.” 

BrewTC is one of several businesses to resist the lure to reopen. 

Hustle, then cross your fingers

With only a few days notice that Memorial Day weekend would start the tourism season, businesses across northern Michigan sprinted to prepare.

Crystal River Outfitters, a kayak rental store in Glen Arbor, put off plans for a permanent counter to put up a plywood one to enforce distancing at the register. Traverse City Whiskey’s delivery of spread for the distillery’s cheese platters did not arrive until after its doors opened. 

Reg Smith, vice president of hotels for Stafford’s Hospitality, a collection of restaurants and hotels around Petoskey, hustled to recall and re-train employees on new room sanitization procedures. Ken Schwaiger, store manager of The Totem Shop, an outdoor clothing store in Glen Arbor, installed a plexiglass shield at the register Thursday night for a Friday opening. 

Espresso Bay, a Traverse City coffee shop, upped its daily milk delivery from 10 gallons to 32 gallons under the wire. The dumpster behind The Towne Plaza, a Traverse City restaurant, was full by 10 AM on Friday, but nobody had thought to arrange for extra pick ups. 

Woman walking a dog up a dune
Bridge photo by John Russell
The Dune Climb, a popular attraction in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, was a popular spot on Saturday. Elizabeth Scott, from the Muskegon area, brought her three children and dog Gravy, an American bulldog, Up North for a day trip with her sister’s family.

Opening northern Michigan after the Memorial Day holiday “probably would have been more sensible,” said Chris Hoffman, owner of The Towne Plaza. “We went from ‘don't leave your house’ to ‘everybody's coming in like four days.’” 

Some businesses, like North Peak Brewing Company in Traverse City, decided to skip the holiday weekend to buy more time to reorient to serving customers during an ongoing pandemic. Mike Lloyd, general manager for the restaurant and regional manager for Mission Restaurant Group, said his team is spending the weekend installing UV sterilizer lights in the air ducts, adding non-touch activators on their sinks and toilets, printing single-use paper menus and deep cleaning the building.

Kickbush, of BrewTC, is intently watching what happens with businesses like North Peak over the next few weeks. 

He and his co-owner have eyed reopening in late June since closing in March, and the recent reopening did not sway that decision. Incurring re-opening costs this early feels too risky, Kickbush told Bridge. And he said he fears “giving all our progress (in flattening the COVID-19 curve) back if we jump in too early.”

Kavi Raval and Radha Sampha, two physicians from metro Detroit, drank outside Taproot Cider House, comforted by the precautions they saw in town and on the Sleeping Bear Dune Climb. Kathryn Hawley, manager of a clothing store, beamed at the prospect of interacting with customers again. 

A hand sanitizing station and sign asking tourists to take health precautions
Bridge photo by Alexandra Schmidt
A hand sanitizing station sits on Front Street in Traverse City next to a sign encouraging tourists to take public health precautions that can limit the spread of coronavirus.

Some northern residents forfeit their hometowns to the tourists for now to avoid the possibility of interacting with COVID carriers from downstate.

Michelle Nuno, who lives in Frankfort and works as a pharmacy technician in Honor, said she is shying away from public spaces. With children at home and an elderly parent she hasn’t seen in three months, she is not excited by the prospect of sitting in local restaurants with visitors from COVID-19 hotspots. 

“I love to see it for our little towns, in our economy that really needs this,” she said. But “my gut tells me we're going to have another spike... because of the carelessness I've seen already,” including an unmasked man from Midland who entered the pharmacy, skipping the hand sanitizing station at the entrance.

“We've stayed at home. We haven't gone on hiking trails...We wear masks in the grocery,” she said. “Have respect for the people who have worked hard to keep this community clear.”

Open and they will come, or some will

In reopening much of northern Michigan, Whitmer urged downstate residents on Monday to “think long and hard” before visiting. 

“We've been here since Wednesday,” said Rose Tome of Plymouth while shopping with her daughters in Glick's, a clothing store on Front Street in Traverse City. 

Two kayakers paddling down the river
Bridge photo by John Russell
Kayakers paddle down the Crystal River, making their way past downtown Glen Arbor on Saturday afternoon.

“I think it should have been open two weeks ago...I'm retired and it's not fun sitting all day and all night,” she said. “I'm from the era where you quarantine people that were sick, not well people.”

Tome and other tourists told Bridge they were spending the weekend in AirBnBs, hotels and campgrounds — despite the governor’s order continuing a ban on short-term vacation rentals, which Whitmer has repeatedly said are limited to essential workers and pandemic volunteers. 

“We’ve had tons and tons and tons of calls, and most people were reserving,” said Rick Thompson, front desk manager at Petoskey’s Stafford Perry Hotel.

After Whitmer’s announcement, Memorial Day Weekend reservations at Stafford jumped from six to 52.

“To the extent that we are hotel operators, we believe that everyone has an essential reason to be in our hotel and it's really up to the guests to make their own evaluation on that point,” said Stafford’s Smith.

Jess Pershinske, standing with hands in pockets behind a plastic sheet hung from the ceiling
Bridge photo by John Russell
Jess Pershinske from Maple City dropped her plans to spend time in Marquette, where she is working on a nursing degree at Northern Michigan University, when she got the word she could return to the job she’s held for the last few summers at Crystal River Outfitters, a outdoor equipment rental in Glen Arbor. The store now requires all customers to wear a face mask when being bused to the drop point, limits the vehicle capacity and rental equipment is sprayed with sanitizer after it is returned.

Smith, who personally sanitized the hotel’s patio furniture Saturday morning, said the hotel is only cleaning rooms in between guests rather than daily to limit interactions with staff. It has instituted no-contact towel exchanges, given employees more time to clean used rooms and requires masked workers to constantly clean high-touch areas like elevator buttons. 

Tourists say precautions like that are making them comfortable enough to spend the night. 

David Sibert, up from West Bloomfield and staying with his wife Reneé at a Traverse City hotel, said over breakfast at the Omelette Shoppe they could “smell the disinfectant” walking into their room. (Reneé still cleaned the room’s hard surfaces with wipes brought from home.) And Randy St. Lauren, who said he is spending his getaway from Lapeer County at the Wild Cherry RV Resort with extended family members, said the grounds provided ample distance from other visitors.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the widespread use of vacation rentals.

Despite the last minute spike in lodging reservations and photos of bumper-to-bumper northbound traffic circulating on social media Friday afternoon, businesses say crowds are lower than a normal Memorial Day weekend. 

The Stafford Perry Hotel hit 45 percent capacity compared to a historic occupancy rate over 75 percent. Schwaiger, of The Totem Shop, said the store was seeing 25 percent of normal traffic for the kickoff of Memorial Day weekend.

If this is any indication of the summer to come, the businesses that spoke to Bridge expect to scrape through a tight summer season.

“Fifty percent of summertime is still greater than 100 percent of wintertime, if you look at it that way,” said Hoffman, of the Towne Plaza.

Chilling across Lake Michigan coast 

Similar scenes unfolded across much of the Lake Michigan coast this weekend, residents enjoying the outdoors but staying responsibly apart from others.

Couples and families visited summer staples such as the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the public lakefront in Traverse City and, further south — outside the northern Michigan region partially reopened by Whitmer — sandy beaches along the lakefront. Crowds were sparse to modest, with visitors appearing to keep their distance. 

Cary and Lori Gray, seated facing away from the camera, on the beach looking toward the lake
Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs
Cary and Lori Gray of suburban Grand Rapids were among several beach-goers Saturday at Grand Haven State Park.

At Grand Haven State Park, a local couple sat at the edge of Lake Michigan Saturday as they shared a sunny day with their daughter, son-in-law and 1-year-old granddaughter.

They were among perhaps several hundred people widely scattered on this broad expanse. 

“This feels almost normal,” said Grand Haven resident Christina Toppen, perched in a lawn chair next to her husband, John.

“This is good, as long as everybody is staying away from each other, which they are doing.”

As for the call by some to fully open the Michigan economy, Toppen said she stands with Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic.

“We fully support her, 100 percent,” she said.

A few yards down the beach, Spring Lake resident John Cydzik, sitting with a friend and his young daughter, had a different take.

“We are so happy to be out. It’s great to be out, to hear the waves, the sounds of kids, the boats – the sounds of life,” he said.

He added his view that it’s time for the state to return to normal.

“It’s almost like the virus paid a visit and now it’s gone. Everything should be open. We should be free to move around. This being shut down is really hurting business.”

Nearby, a suburban Grand Rapids couple, Cary and Lori Gray, proclaimed themselves regular visitors to their beloved lakeshore.

The Grays seemed unsure of how and when the entire state should resume normal activity, but they agreed on one thing.

“What you don’t want to see,” said Lori Gray, “is how the politics got involved and everything is so political.” 

Sun, sand and sanitizer

Those northern businesses that reopened this weekend offer a preview of what visitors can anticipate this summer.

Expect to relearn the rules at every business. One restaurant may sanitize menus before and after use, while another will hand out single use paper menus.

A boy, center, wearing a mask and looking directly into the camera while snuggled against his mother's hip
Bridge photo by John Russell
R.J. Baker snuggles up against his mother, Beth, in the facemask his grandmother made for him. The family got dinner to-go at The Fleet, a food truck court, in Traverse City on Friday night after putt-putt golfing, biking, walking the beach and exploring a nature reserve.

The clothing store may ask you to go in one door and out another to maximize flow through the store. The next business may block the second door to maximize control over one entrance. 

Go-to destinations may look a little different. North Peak expects beef shortages to intermittently knock crowd favorites off the menu while Traverse City Whiskey plans to continue producing hand sanitizer alongside their whiskey.

Speaking of sanitizer, get ready for a lot of it. Sanitizer inside store doors. Sanitizer by the hotel lobby ATM. Sanitizer at rest stops. Sanitizer on sidewalks. Sanitizing stations in the middle of restaurants. Lifejackets drying over a railing after being sprayed with sanitizer. 

But don’t expect isolation. “I think generally people are going to come,” Hoffman said. “They did this weekend...with four days notice.”

Bridge Magazine reporter Ted Roelofs contributed to this article

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