BAUDETTE, MINN. – The distant sound of boats filled in gaps in conversations on a packed patio overlooking the Rainy River on a recent summer night. The parking lot was full of cars from Iowa, Michigan and beyond.
Lake of the Woods County was the last place in Minnesota to record its first confirmed COVID-19 infection in July, a full 142 days after the state's first case arrived. Since then infections have risen to seven, as of Friday, as visitors pack resorts and summer homes here in the self-proclaimed walleye capital of the world.
Yet even as the state's least densely populated county was spared infection for so long, the effects of the virus have been felt for months. Now the delayed and busy summer could have consequences.
"More people coming through probably means more risk," said Kay Schell, community health manager at LakeWood Public Health. "COVID-19 is going to be around for many months. ... We cannot let our guard down. We need to stay vigilant."
Pandemic shutdowns and mandates have been met with a mix of resentment and gratitude among the county's 3,800 residents, divisions that grew as the virus stayed distant yet many restrictions remained.
State orders have left many businesses stressed about their future, while local officials even closed fishing access to deter visitors this spring.
"It's a balancing act," said county Commissioner Ed Arnesen, who owns a resort on the lake. "We need the business to survive, but on the other side we don't want the virus."
Lynn Furbish, who owns the Enchanted Cottage shop and cafe in downtown Baudette and was relieved to see masks mandated statewide, said the virus quickly became "extremely political" in the county, which President Donald Trump carried with 69% of the vote in 2016.
"Up until we just got a case, there was a share of people who still thought it was a hoax," Furbish said. "We're always the last to get anything. The fact it took as long as it did didn't surprise me."
Many residents say they have not been directly affected. The most immediate impact on Baudette Mayor Rick Rone is that he wouldn't be able to use his Vikings season tickets this year.
"We've been lucky," he said. "Looking at the counties around us, there are higher counts all the time."
As restrictions have lifted, visitors longing for a normal summer have swarmed the northern edge of the state, bringing the threat of imported COVID-19 to a place that for so long watched it strike everywhere but here.
Resort owners say they're as busy as they want to be.
"It's been nuts," said Gregg Hennum, co-owner of Sportsman's Lodge. "I'm sure people saw we had a low COVID count, looking at the map."
Local real estate has been selling fast as well, he said, as more people look to put the "remote" in working remotely.
While being ferried across the lake to Oak Island, one guest said as long as the internet holds out she planned on staying several weeks, Hennum said.
"Later on she called and said: I'll be here a month."
In late July, on one of the hottest days of the year, many locals are anxiously looking ahead to the cold season.
"We're keeping staff and guests healthy and we're cautiously confident we'll have a good winter," Hennum said.
Ice fishing is a big draw for the region, but if COVID-19 cases start to seriously spike — in the county or elsewhere — it could mean more lockdowns or restrictions.
"We've been busy, but I'm hoping this winter things make a turn," said Trish Schulz, general manager of the AmericInn in Baudette. "We're hoping for a very good winter, which I think everybody is."
Need for normal
Julie Mollberg struck an optimistic tone as she sorted through clothes at the Ronnings store she manages in downtown Baudette.
"It's great to see tourists back in the area," she said. "No, we don't need the virus, but we need a sense of normalcy, too."
Mollberg said customers have come from as far away as California and Florida this year, like most years, but like other business owners she's not blaming visitors for bringing the virus.
"We have people from the county traveling out of state, too, so it was going to happen sooner or later," she said. "There's nothing you can do to stop it."
Officials are still asking folks to try as hard as they can to slow the spread, even if they couldn't exactly pinpoint why it took so long for the virus to reach Lake of the Woods County.
"We are not living in crowded conditions. I think that has been in our favor," said Schell, the public health official. "There are probably several factors that contribute to our lack of cases. Some are good prevention strategies and some of it is our location, our small population and geography."
The area was threatened with greater isolation when the Canadian border closed — although many visitors who would normally head to Ontario resorts are now stopping on the American side of Lake of the Woods.
"The biggest impact we've had is on the Northwest Angle — you can't drive up there through Canada," said Arnesen, the county commissioner who represents that northernmost part of the contiguous U.S.
It's now accessible only by a 35-mile boat ride. Arnesen said he hopes federal legislation helps the cut-off patch of American soil and other businesses that have been burned by pandemic restrictions.
"Somehow we have to get these businesses through."
When the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct station burned, Baudette Lutheran Parish Pastor Birgitte Catlin was thinking about her parents, who live in that part of the city.
"As much as we are isolated, we are inherently connected to everyone else," said Catlin, who has led the 700-member parish since January 2019. "This is a time of reckoning for our country as a whole, and we are not exempt from that."
In talks with parishioners, Catlin said she has brought up this togetherness often amid the daily Facebook battles that underlie an otherwise quaint corner of the world.
"There actually is another side to this, and we're still going to be together," she said. "The only way to get through is to work together."