DULUTH – Vitta Pizza owner Brad Erickson has always seen Grandma's Marathon weekend as the official kickoff to summer.

The finish line is yards from his 10-year-old restaurant, and sales that weekend are "very significant," he said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the race to be run virtually last year, there was a "strange and sterile" quality to that weekend and the rest of the season, he said, in direct contrast to what he's witnessed in the days running up to Saturday's live race.

"Let's start the party. People are fired up to have some fun," Erickson said.

Because of the pandemic, the number of runners was cut in half — to 9,500 — for the three races that make up the 45th Grandma's Marathon event. But many Duluth business owners, like the Blue Heron Trading Co.'s Jane Jenkins, are expecting a largely typical race weekend as COVID-19 activity declines.

"With a smaller field that helps us feel safer," said Jenkins, whose shop is in the Canal Park DeWitt Seitz Marketplace. "But we're still expecting a good crowd."

Hotel occupancy rates in Duluth are typically near capacity for the marathon, said Anna Tanski, president of Visit Duluth. Hotels were 70% full during last year's race weekend, but with reduced occupancy and room rates, "it was a double whammy" hit to tourism tax collections, she said. Hotels were 80 to 90% full on weekends in late May and early June this year and about 60% full during the week around that time. That weekday rate was double what it was last year.

"Recovery has begun," Tanski said. "There is every indication this will be a strong weekend."

Lake Superior Art Glass also overlooks the finish line, but the big "traffic-maker days" are before and after race day, said gallery manager Bryan Burns.

After last year, he expects a "pretty close to normal" weekend, he said, "and I think a lot of people are excited" for that.

Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma's Inc., has stationed himself by the marathon finish line for every single race — even last year's, when 100 or so people still ran the course, he said.

"I came down here just to be here and it was very emotional," he said, and a "radically different" event.

This year, Grandma's restaurants are gearing up for a big weekend with extra outdoor tables at Grandma's Saloon on the patio overlooking the Aerial Lift Bridge and at Little Angie's Cantina. The company's Ice Cream Boxcar is temporarily closed to help with race weekend staffing levels as it faces the same worker shortages felt elsewhere in the area.

Still, the vibe is "joyous," Daugherty said. "It's like a celebration of getting our lives back, our events back, our industry back."

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450