GRAND MARAIS, MINN. – As customers stood 6 feet apart at the checkout stand inside Buck’s Hardware store, some looked at unfamiliar faces with suspicion.
“I wouldn’t want your job,” one man told a clerk behind the counter. “Especially with all the city people coming up. … What part of ‘stay home’ don’t they understand?”
Cashier Micah Avery shrugged later: “That’s a lot of what we’re hearing.”
For years, the remote and wooded Cook County along the North Shore of Lake Superior has promoted itself as a tourist’s escape to nature and solitude. But with just a small hospital and nearly a third of its 5,500 residents older than 65, the COVID-19 pandemic has produced a conundrum: How far should the locals go to discourage visitors in hopes of keeping the coronavirus at bay?
Residents have been debating it on social media, inside stores and in their homes. Some suggested blocking the main thoroughfare of state Hwy. 61 at the county border. Others deemed it OK to allow cabin owners in but not those seeking hotel rooms or other short-term lodging. Still others maintained that chasing people away was unrealistic and locals had no right to judge what compelled an outsider to head to Cook County.
Similar scenarios are playing out in small vacation spots across the nation, from the Hamptons and other weekend getaway spots outside New York City to the rocky landscapes of Moab, Utah.
“We are not unique,” said Kjersti Vick, marketing and public relations director for the tourism promoter Visit Cook County, which paused its marketing. With so many questions still surrounding the virus, she said, “I wish we knew more … what is safe? What is OK? What is appropriate?”
As information — and social pressure — developed in the past week, several resorts eventually announced that they would be closing over the weekend. Still, as of Friday, cars dotted parking lots at some resorts and a few skiers raced down the hills at Lutsen Mountains. Trucks pulling trailers with snowmobiles were still heading north.
Cascade Vacation Rentals, a management service for people who rent out their houses and cabins, was among the first to decide to stop taking guests. Owner Mike Larson and his business partner encouraged other lodging businesses in Cook County to do the same.
By Saturday, the Cook County Chamber of Commerce put out a statement urging all nonessential businesses to begin closing down, warning that visitors should be on their way home in case Gov. Tim Walz issues a shelter-in-place order in the state soon.
“I think there is … a false sense of security up here, right? It’s ‘Let’s go up there. It’s rural. We could have a cabin in the woods. It’s safe.’ ” Larson said. “But we are small. We are rural. And we could get smoked.”
The Cook County health system has just six physicians, one nurse practitioner, 16 hospital beds and one transport ventilator, residents pointed out. The nearest intensive care unit is in Duluth, more than 100 miles away.
The local medical staff is preparing for the worst, acting as if the virus is already in their midst because they can’t realistically believe it will never arrive, explained Dr. Kurt Farchmin, acting as the medical director of the Cook County COVID-19 response. Administrators are figuring out how they will keep COVID-19 patients in a separate part of the building.
Saturday, health officials announced a positive COVID-19 case in St. Louis County — the closest Minnesota case yet.
“People travel,” Farchmin said. “We know that people … have come and are coming to our area.”
Slowing the virus’ spread through self-quarantine, social distancing and other precautions is key, he said. The county’s aging population will depend on it.
“We have to start preparing for … the very distinct possibility that Duluth’s ICU beds will be full,” he said. “When that happens, we don’t have the lifesaving support, which means that people’s lives are not saved.”
Cabinet maker Keith Kuckler said he’s worried about unknowing virus carriers coming in and spreading the strain on gas pump handles and store doors.
Cabin owners, who feel like part of the community, are likely to stay in their own spaces, he said, but he’s afraid short-term renters might not exercise the same care.
“I’m going to be 71 this fall, so I’m kind of mindful of this stuff,” Kuckler said. “There’s a bit of a tension I would say between some of us that are more concerned and some of us that have the agenda of the business community at heart.”
Twin Cities metro residents Lissa Pawlisch and Wil Bailey hadn’t made the trek into town at all since checking into a condo in Lutsen a day earlier. They brought groceries with them.
After canceling a trip to Costa Rica, they wanted to get away somewhere with their 12-year-old son.
“It’s a prettier place to shelter in place,” Bailey said as the couple walked their black lab, Kyla. The family had been on the ski slopes and felt safely socially distanced.
“We’re staving off the stir crazy,” Bailey said. “There’s a lot of space.”
Cook County typically prides itself on being a welcoming place.
“When times are good, they want to be all encompassing. They want to be very welcoming,” said Andy DeLisi, who co-owns Big Bear Lodge, a small resort he and his wife decided to close temporarily starting Sunday.
Business typically slows this time of year, he and other business owners said. So if they have to shut down for a while, it might as well be now.
At tourist-popular Sven & Ole’s Pizza in town, manager Brittney Franks stood behind the counter. Signs limited service to only five people in the building at a time. Locals watch out for one another and have been loyal to businesses, she said. Several travelers from the Twin Cities have also stopped in for takeout.
“I don’t know how to feel about that. It’s good that we’re getting some business, but it’s kind of scary,” Franks said. “There’s been a lot of talk among my friends’ group of, ‘Can you guys all go back to the Cities for a minute?’ ”
Several residents resented seeing outsiders grab toilet paper or other high-demand supplies from local stores, which for a while were stocked when shelves in larger cities were bare. Some stores are now limiting the number of such items shoppers can buy.
At Buck’s Hardware, owner Stephen Skeels said he’d been getting a lot of calls from out-of-town area codes asking whether they have hand sanitizer and other high-demand items. He’s seen a steady stream of cabin owners coming in to gather supplies, including bait.
“It’s easy to be isolated if you’re sitting in your cabin,” he said, “or sitting out on the lake.”