Itasca County Tourism Industry Impacted by COVID-19

Businesses and organizations ready to serve tourists despite the unprecedented circumstances

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – Downtown Grand Rapids is bustling with summer in full swing.

“Outdoor recreation is not closed and, in Grand Rapids, we are a mecca for outdoor recreation,” said Megan Christianson, Executive Director of Visit Grand Rapids.

With a million acres of public forest and more than a thousand area lakes, tourism is the heart of the local economy.

“It represents about $78 million a year for the county,” explained Christianson. “It employees over 1,500 employees.”

But in the midst of a global pandemic, the local hospitality industry has been forced to delay its busy season.

The Sugar Lake Lodge in nearby Cohasset is opening its doors for the first time this summer on Friday, June 19th.

“The last four or five days we can barely keep up with the calls,” said Sugar Lake owner Fred Bobich.

Despite the demand, the resort and golf course will only have 60 percent of its regular staff.

Most of its income is made from corporate functions, which have been canceled this year.

“This lodge that can handle groups of up to 250 people will be vacant, from what I can tell, until we come up with a vaccine,” said Bobich.

Sugar Lake Lodge is counting on a busy July and August filled with family vacations to make up for the lost revenue.

The owner says his staff is doing everything they can to limit contact and disinfect surfaces, but he doesn’t know if guests will feel comfortable enough to travel this summer and how their anxiety could impact his business long-term.

“We may very well, at the end of August and into September, decide it’s in our best interest just to shut it down until the following spring,” explained Bobich. “That’s a possibility.”

Meanwhile, many popular Grand Rapids attractions closed in March. Now, some are opening their doors again.

The Judy Garland museum is set to open June 26th. The Itasca County Historical Society has been open since June 10th.

“You felt refreshed and renewed and that’s what people, when they walked in the door were like ‘We can actually go through the museum,'” said Historical Society Executive Director Lilah Crowe.

The site has a model train display, a local veterans exhibit, and a section dedicated to ‘Grace,’ Minnesota’s state photograph.

“It was in 1918, so we had just finished World War I, we were into the Spanish Flu and there were so many people dying everywhere, and he just wanted to show a picture of thankfulness,” explained Crowe.

The museum’s aisles are one-way only to promote social distancing, and guests are encouraged to wear masks.

The historical society has canceled its annual ghost tours, but it’s planning to host escape rooms for the first time ever.

Staff say the museum is all about helping guests learn and have a fun time.

“We are Minnesota nice in Northern Minnesota,” added Crowe. “Let me tell ya.”

The Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids has also been forced to switch up programming.

“We’re trying to create activities for our community that people can still enjoy entertainment in a safe fashion,” said Reif Center Executive Director Chanel Dow.

The non-profit is hosting drive-in concerts and movies and boat-in concerts outside.

Its 700 and 200 seat theaters have been closed since early spring and performances have been postponed to when restrictions may be lifted more.

“The shows that we had brought in had already sold a good number of tickets, very popular shows. So they will take place sometime between September of 2020 and the spring of 2021 as long as the governor says things are safe,” explained Dow.

Across Itasca County, businesses and organizations are as ready as ever to serve tourists, despite the unprecedented environment.

“We are set for them to arrive, but they will have changes that they will see once they do arrive,” said Christianson.


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