DULUTH – Downtown shops are decking their storefronts, and the city’s 12-story light-up Christmas tree already stands tall in preparation for the holiday season that typically brings hundreds of thousands of visitors and a year-end boost to the regional economy each December.
But with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise across the state and the Midwest, northeastern Minnesota officials are grappling with how to promote public health without hurting the local businesses in desperate need of tourism traffic.
“Stay safe and stay open — that’s really our top priority,” said Kjersti Vick, marketing manager for Visit Cook County.
Northern Minnesota has seen an unprecedented increase in new daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Duluth doctors last week said that ICU beds in the health care hub are mostly filled, and close to a dozen school districts have halted in-person classes. “The virus is spreading rapidly, and if we don’t act decisively, it threatens to spiral out of control,” said Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health’s regional facilities.
At a news conference on Thursday, Duluth officials urged residents to consider canceling holiday travel plans that could cause more infections in the region.
“There is no single outing, in my mind, that is worth the health risk of this pandemic to you and your family,” Mayor Emily Larson said.
But those warnings to locals didn’t include pleas for visitors to stay away. Minnesotans living farther south are seeing billboards and commercials advertising Up North as a winter wonderland full of powdery slopes and cozy fireplaces.
So far the mixed messaging has been met mostly with a wait-and-see attitude.
“Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a higher percentage of cancellations as a direct result of COVID,” said Aaron Bosanko, marketing director for Odyssey Resorts, which owns several North Shore properties including Caribou Highlands and Grand Superior Lodge.
“But at the same time,” he added, “people are also taking a more optimistic view and booking a few more weeks out.”
For those who visit Duluth this winter, the pandemic’s effects will be apparent. The annual Christmas City of the North Parade isn’t allowing in-person guests, though folks will still be able to watch Santa cruise through downtown on local TV. The Bentleyville Tour of Lights will be a drive-through event for the first time. And Glensheen Mansion is pitching self-guided tours as a “COVID-safe holiday activity.”
Jane Pederson Jandl, marketing manager for the historic estate, said Glensheen expects a 30% loss in revenue this fiscal year. Based on their latest projections, the mansion is hoping to receive 11,000 visitors this December, about 5,000 fewer than last year’s busy month.
Pederson Jandl recommended that visitors set on seeing Glensheen this Christmas come sooner in case the mansion is forced to stop tours as the virus’ spread worsens.
“We would have to find creative solutions,” she said, reflecting on the possibility of another state-ordered shutdown. “I am hopeful that we would survive.”
Anna Tanski, president of Visit Duluth, worries such an order would be devastating for a number of already struggling local businesses. The city’s tourism nonprofit surveyed a group of 100 hotels, attractions and restaurants recently, and one-third of respondents said they anticipate having to halt operations in the next six months unless they receive some form of financial relief.
“We can’t take another hit,” she said. “We have yet to recover from the first one.”
Even Tanski’s own organization, which is dedicated to marketing the area, is in survival mode. Visit Duluth laid off most of its staff over the summer, but recent grants allowed it to bring back two furloughed employees and launch a winter marketing campaign.
Advertisements are playing up the region’s outdoor amenities, like Spirit Mountain and Lutsen, as options for those looking for COVID-friendly ways to recreate. Those in charge of the ski hills are hoping Mother Nature will play nice this year as they prepare for increased interest.
A strong season for Spirit Mountain could help make the case for continued public investment as the city-owned ski hill’s finances remain under review after several bailouts. The interim executive director said last month “there’s a lot of enthusiasm and some pent-up demand.”
“We’re certainly hoping for a combination of needing to get out and do something in the fresh air and having more manageable travel,” Ann Glumac said.
Area restaurants are starting to winterize patios and rearrange indoor setups in preparation for the cold months that could make or break those businesses. “Our local community and these businesses take safety very, very seriously,” Tanski said.
Many use Duluth’s tourism tax collections as a metric of the city’s industry. That revenue, which comes from a levy on hotels and restaurants, is down 30% from last year, according to figures through September.
Duluth has seen the state’s highest hotel occupancy rates this year through September and the smallest decline from 2019, but the city has still seen a 25% drop compared with 2019. Rooms have been nearly half-full through the start of autumn in Duluth, according to STR Lodging Performance Metrics data shared by the Minneapolis Fed last week. Statewide occupancy has been closer to 38% and 25% in Minneapolis.
As she anxiously keeps an eye on the region’s COVID-19 numbers, Tanski hopes Duluth’s Christmas traditions — albeit adapted versions of them — might provide a semblance of normalcy for families.
“It’s those types of things I think we’re all craving,” she said. “Especially during the holiday season.”