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Northern Michigan braces for tourists as counties move to high risk for COVID

Mackinac Island
Visitors are booking hotels and campsites in northern Michigan as COVID cases go up in more than 20 counties. (Michael Deemer / Shutterstock.com)

COVID risk levels are ratcheting into the red zone in northern Michigan, just as tourists begin their annual migration to the state’s scenic stretches, waterways, fairs and festivals.

Travel for Memorial Day weekend is expected to be the busiest in three years, according to the auto club AAA, which forecasts more than 1.1 million Michiganders will be on the road.

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In many cases, they’re leaving counties where COVID is raging for destinations where it as as well: 22 of 83 counties —  home to more than half the state’s population — are now listed as a top risk in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s three-tiered risk system

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The counties include southeast Michigan, six of seven counties in the eastern Upper Peninsula, which includes Mackinac Island, Sault Ste. Marie and Tahquamenon Falls State Park, and nine in northern Michigan, covering such destinations as Traverse City, Petoskey and Harbor Springs.

 

“People are out and about. Everyone’s champing at the bit to get lives back to normal, said Karen Senkus, health officer for Chippewa County in the Upper Peninsula, where cases have climbed to 177 this week from 37 in April.

The county was recently pushed into the high risk zone — in which the CDC recommends indoor mask usage — following recent, heavily attended, events such as Lake Superior State University’s commencement, high school graduation, end-of-year parties and even dance recitals, Senkus said.

“It’s not great timing at all,” said Kerry Ott, spokesperson for the LMAS Health Department that covers the eastern U.P., including Mackinac County where counties rose 54 percent in the past two weeks to 34 total cases.

“We are obviously informing and recommending, but that’s just about all we can do. We’re saying ‘get your masks back out,’ but it’s up to each person to do that,” she said.

Travel and outdoor activities have surged throughout the pandemic — and northern Michigan motels have benefited, said Justna Hershman, manager of the Aurora Borealis Motel in St. Ignace in Mackinac County.

“We saw an explosion in tourism because people are looking for outdoor activities to maintain social distancing,” Hershman said. “Most places were still in lockdown, so travelers changed their plans and started looking for outdoor recreation here.”

Staffers of the Bavarian Haus Lakefront Inn in St. Ignace are closely monitoring cases and continuing enhanced cleaning that began two years ago, said  general manager Sarah Wiggins.

“We have been fighting it the best we can but the last two years have been busy. The season is starting up and people still want to get out of their houses and enjoy themselves,” Wiggins said. 

Michigan officials also anticipate the surge in state park usage will continue where it left off last year, when there were more than 35 million visits, up more than 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

Ryan Baunman, Emmet County’s director of parks and recreation, said the spring is already busy. Baunman said his team “came together” at the onset of the pandemic and cleaned the buildings more thoroughly than before. 

“That was the only thing we really added,” Bauman said. “We’ll try to maintain those services.”

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Like other parks across Michigan, Bauman said staffing shortages presented a challenge the past two seasons. Across the state’s economy, workers left their jobs in droves during the pandemic but didn’t return in equal numbers. 

That was until parks started offering competitive wages, Bauman said. The county did a full wage evaluation for all its staff members, including seasonal workers and Bauman said the parks are “paying more competitively, that’s really what it boils down to.”

“This year that’s going a lot better, we’re nearly fully staffed,” Bauman said.

Editor's note: This article was changed at 2:52 p.m. Monday, May 23, to note the Aurora Borealis Motel is in St. Ignace. The location was incorrect in an earlier version.

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