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Northern Minnesota businesses turn south

Jul 28, 2021 09:52AM ● By Editor


By Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal from Yahoo Canada - July 27, 2021

Canadian border crossings will open to double-vaccinated U.S. citizens on Aug. 9 while the U.S. border will remain closed to their “Canadian friends” until at least Aug. 21.

“From an economics standpoint, however necessary it is, it’s disappointing because we really need to see that border reopened,” said Jim Boyd, executive director of northeastern Minnesota’s Cook County Chamber of Commerce. “As far as Grand Marais goes, the Thunder Bay people are our best customers so we really need them back. Even more critical, Grand Portage Casino needs its friends from Thunder Bay visiting again.”

Boyd says they expected things to be bad during the pandemic closures and restrictions but surprisingly, it wasn’t.

“Most businesses did very well, especially our lodging businesses, because it turns out that a lot of people from the denser areas like the Twin Cities, for example, wanted to escape there and came up here,” he said. “They also discovered that we have excellent broadband coverage here so they can work from here, and because our economy is tourism-based, overall we did very well.”

Mary Somnis, executive director of the Cook County Economic Development Authority, also saw this trend.

“Once we were able to reopen, the entire north shore was a very busy destination with lots of new people coming,” she said.

“I think it’s because of the emphasis on outdoors and recreation — that is our stock and trade here on the shore.”

Somnis says many of their businesses reported great recovery from what was lost during the shutdown and that continued straight through winter, spring and summer.

“Many of the lodging businesses are booked right through to the fall,” she says.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t businesses that didn’t suffer,” added Boyd, noting the ones that “especially suffered” are along the Canadian border like Grand Portage Casino and Ryden’s Border Store.

“The majority of their clients are Canadians from Thunder Bay and that border closure really impacted them,” he said.

Even with Thunder Bay residents unable to make the less-than-two-hour drive to Grand Marais, Boyd explained business in the town last summer was “very” high and this summer it’s even higher. Although business is booming, they have encountered another obstacle.

“The problem is that we are suffering severe staff shortages that make it very difficult for people to provide the services that our visitors need,” said Boyd. “That’s partly because we have always depended on international workers and there are very few student (American J-1 program, worker/travel) visa holders here.”

He says the staffing problem in his tourist town is not unlike the staffing challenge that is being seen across the United States. He surmised that there are other impacts that people in the U.S. are sorting out. Their relationship to work, how much they want to work, fear of the pandemic, lack of child care and reluctance to take on second shifts again are all factors keeping people at home, away from the workplace.

Boyd says it’s all going to take a while, and meanwhile, there are a number of businesses — particularly the dining establishments — where it shows up the most, causing them to struggle. Some businesses close for a day or two in the middle of the week because of the shortage.

“Tuesday and Wednesday are the days that the number of visitors is the smallest, so that’s when they close,” said Boyd. “Simply, it’s to ensure that their staff doesn’t burn out because they can’t afford to lose anyone.”

In Cook County, there are no capacity restrictions in place and businesses are fully open when they can be. The state of Minnesota has also lifted its mask requirements.

“I don’t think that there are many businesses that are reimposing mask requirements,” Boyd said. “You see signs on doors that state, ‘mask requested’ or ‘recommended’ but not ‘required.’

“We are in that open state with few restrictions but people are nervous, I think, because of the spike in cases. More and more individuals are getting nervous again because of the Delta variant and concerns about the need to mask.”

Boyd says the number of positive cases over the whole pandemic in Cook County is less than 200. They are one of less than 50 counties in the U.S. that has not had a single pandemic death.

“Our public health department has worked extraordinarily well with our clinic, hospital and our business community to keep the population and the visitors to Cook County safe,” Boyd said.

“Everyone has done an extraordinary job and I think that will continue even through this period of nervous reopening.”

Boyd says they are getting one or two positive COVID-19 cases a week and some weeks they go without any.

A devastating fire in 2020 destroyed three businesses along the quaint Wisconsin Street, destroying Picnic and Pine gift shop, Crooked Spoon restaurant and White Pine North gift shop.

The corner parking lot is now occupied by the Crooked Spoon’s new food truck. The lot has been purchased by a developer.

To see the original story and read related articles, follow this link to the Yahoo Canada website.

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