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.   

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. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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. 

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. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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 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.  (Bridge photo by Alexandra Schmidt.)

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. 

Kayakers paddle down the Crystal River, making their way past downtown Glen Arbor on Saturday afternoon. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

“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 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. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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 of suburban Grand Rapids were among several beach-goers Saturday at Grand Haven State Park. (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

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.

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. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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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Sun, 05/24/2020 - 1:35pm

Methodical, disciplined opening may be the answer. time will tell. It's a start anyway.

Mon, 05/25/2020 - 5:19pm

You were right - time did tell. All it took was one day. All the shops up here at the Mercato in Traverse City were closed today because downers refused to wear masks indoors in the stores. All closed. "Poof-just like that, employees sent home with no checks because face masks violate peoples rights".
Friends of mine that own a few shops in town also closed their stores today. For the same reason. They told me they may reopen next week when the invaders leave town.
That self discipline thing don't work too well with those folks who re-imagine the constitution in their own image.

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 8:41am

I enjoyed my time at my home in northern Michigan over the weekend, wore mask and social distanced in hardware store, like everyone else. I noticed that locals out on the beach didn't wear masks or social distance. By locals, I mean both people who live there year round and snowbirds, aka old people with underlying conditions, who returned for the summer. They kept coming closer to me, even when I told them I was socially distancing because I could be asymptomatic. I found myself having to back up a lot. Another oddity was people on beaches who let their dogs run without a leash. We don't know for sure if dogs can spread the virus. Dogs on the beach roam freely making contact with people and other dogs. I think everyone is letting down their guard because the president is trying to pretend the whole pandemic never happened. Everyone is getting the wrong message, especially young people who already think they are invincible and were dealt a cruel blow to their social lives. Two months of sacrifice is just completely unbearable to them seemingly unaware many of our ancestors endured four years of hardships living in Nazi Europe during WW2. Yet the powder-puffs here are at their wit's end because of two months of being very loosely quarantined.

Mitchell Robinson
Sun, 05/24/2020 - 2:37pm

No thanks...I'll stay right here in my little house, and keep my germs to myself.

Ed of SEMI
Sun, 05/24/2020 - 2:59pm

No problem TC. Will not be visiting this year...or next...or next.

No thanks
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 8:44am

Love TC, but no reason to go there if people are not taking precautions.

Sun, 05/24/2020 - 7:05pm

The rest of the state is watching us guinea pigs up here to see if we get a spike or if it's safe to open up elsewhere. Those who are careless and the "Corona Blind" are working against efforts at reopening the rest of the state.
The COVID carriers from downstate are in town and we see all those short term rentals with Ohio plates on Torch Lake. We know who and where they are. Most of us are simply avoiding them like the plague they are.
Wife and I are happy to just get out on the boat and keep our distance from the rental boats.

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 8:48am

That's what happens when you don't have national leadership. I saw someone with Minnesota plates recklessly driving like a bat out of hell. No respect for fellow human beings.

Kevin Grand
Sun, 05/24/2020 - 9:04pm

If people don't feel safe and want to stay home, feel free to stay home.

Everyone else will be out enjoying the day (sans parades).

Don't forget WHY we observe Memorial Day. Enjoy Monday, everyone.

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 8:57am

Outrageous like Trump golfing. Wait, he's the president and the other guy is the spouse of the governor. I wonder where the outrage would be if Melania went golfing.

"Good for thee, but not for me."
Trump golfs during pandemic despite many attacks on Obama for golfing during tragedies and disasters

Disappointed again
Mon, 05/25/2020 - 10:40am

As a resident of northern Michigan I am happy for those business that have been suffering along with their employees. However it was sad to see most of the vehicles in our grocery store parking lot sporting dealership decals and plate frames from southeast Michigan. It is no longer safe for our retired life so those businesses, restaurants and pubs will have to get by without me. I am sure the pressure from southern Michigan representatives and northern Michigan tourism was to much to ignore any longer. I feel I have been used as a guinea pig in a grand experiment, I guess we’ll see in a few weeks. In the meantime my money stays in the bank. I hope I am wrong.

Open mind
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:07am

Dealership decals and plate frames from southeast Michigan do not mean the people live in southeast Michigan. It means the car was purchased there. It could have had those things on the car when it was sold secondhand. Don't be such a bigot. Don't assume people from "southeast Michigan" are all infected. I know gas station owners in southeast Michigan who have been very busy working the whole time who have been tested and were negative. That said, the vast majority in southeast Michigan have been quarantining quite strictly, wearing masks in public to buy groceries or working and socially distancing.

Wed, 05/27/2020 - 9:43am

This article was too long

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:19am

Maybe you just have a short attention span. Try USA Today instead. Geez, the article is mostly pictures! Are you too busy to read?

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:17am

"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."

What good is this comment, if you don't name the offenders?

Spike 2.0
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:56am

Very little social distancing with people waiting in lines at DQ and food trucks. Some people where masks, but their children don't. What's up with that? The children are carriers.

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 5:29pm

Unbelievable how the Governor is continuing legal action through an appeals court to shut down a 70 year old barber in Owosso but says absolutely nothing about the crowds of tourists who headed north Memorial weekend and the hotels, AirnB's and campgrounds that accomodated them against the Governor's order. Northern Michigan will suffer with outbreaks as the tourists from other areas of the state descend upon those towns. Way to go Gretchen!

Mary Olmsted
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 7:26pm

We love Michigan and have spent the last twenty years renting the same cottage up north this time of the year...and along with that, thousands of dollars, thus willingly contributing to Michigan's economy. Sadly, because we are from a suburb in Missouri and fall under dreaded "tourist" category, we are abiding by your governor's short-term rental prohibition. To be honest, we certainly feel less than welcome coming now, anyway, Hopefully, Michigan will start to heal as will the rest of the country. And hopefully, one day soon, Michigan will once again be able to welcome all of us tourists!