The warming spring gives Cory Merrifield hope that he can soon trade days of coronavirus-mandated home confinement in his Minneapolis condo for afternoons cruising aboard his small yacht on Lake Minnetonka.
But his boating prospects this year, and those of many others with medium-size to larger vessels, hinge on whether marina employees are allowed to work under Gov. Tim Walz’s order for all nonessential workers to stay home in an effort to slow the coronavirus.
Fishing and other outdoor recreation are allowed during the state’s stay-at-home order, and Walz has urged Minnesotans to get outdoors. But some are finding the message muddled, and the interpretation isn’t uniform. Some see a green light, while others say stop.
The confusion signals an upcoming boating season, so widely anticipated by winter-weary Minnesotans, that’s increasingly in jeopardy.
Eric Lightner, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, noted that “maritime transportation workers” — port workers, mariners and equipment operators — are considered essential under the order. That seems to suggest that marina workers can do their jobs.
But on the specific question of employees at Lake Minnetonka marinas, Lightner declined to answer, saying that would require further review.
Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Kim Pleticha had a more direct and disappointing message.
“We’re trying to tell people to respect the spirit of the executive order and to stay home,” she said. “Traveling to go boating is not in the spirit of the order. I know it’s not what anybody wants to hear.”
Health officials say Minnesota is expected to see a peak in COVID-19 cases between early May and early June. State orders about maintaining a social distance of 6 feet and avoiding large crowds apply at Lake Minnetonka, the metro area’s largest and arguably most popular lake.
“Could a conservation officer stop you? Absolutely,” Pleticha said.
Merrifield, a software sales executive, is storing his boat at a marina where it awaits preseason maintenance on its hull. “You’re kind of at the mercy of the marina unless you pull it out and load it yourself,” he said.
Merrifield’s boat is big enough to accommodate a few friends at the requisite distance. But Lake Minnetonka is notorious for its closely packed, crowded Cruisers Cover parties with boats lashed together and the alcohol flowing.
Last summer, the lake’s large gatherings led to a post-July Fourth outbreak of diarrhea among 170 boaters. That led to stricter rules on sewage discharge into the waters.
Beyond Lake Minnetonka, Pleticha said the state’s 1,700 public access sites are open but the DNR hasn’t determined whether it’s going to open and maintain 360 fishing piers, platforms and shore sites. “We are trying really hard but no decisions have been made,” she said.
Last week at Grays Landing on Lake Minnetonka, a few smaller fishing craft were unhitched from pickups and put into the water. Two men discussed the prospects for reaching a cove where crappies are known to thrive.
Paul Pederson, whose home abuts the busy landing, has a bigger boat and relies on a marina to maintain and launch it.
“It seems like being able to use your boat would be a great way to social distance — once you’re on it,” he said.
Former Orono Mayor Gabriel Jabbour owns three marinas on the lake and is the go-to guy for information about boating there. He closed up shop in mid-March but said he has since learned that the governor’s stay-at-home order deemed employees who repair and maintain marine vessels essential.
Now Jabbour plans to reopen his marinas this week, with limited services and employees working safely in separate areas. He said marinas will operate like restaurants that offer takeout service, minimizing contact with the public and scaling back services.
But he said he still expects to see a drop in revenue this year owing to limited services and fewer boaters going out on the lake. In 2014, no-wake restrictions because of high water levels slowed boating, but Jabbour said he doesn’t know if this summer will look like that.
“We’re going to put people’s boats, God willing, in the water,” Jabbour said. “I think people will go out. They probably have more cabin fever than they ever have.”
Tom Jacob, owner of the Bay to Bay Boat Club in Excelsior, is usually busy by now but said phone lines have been quiet. He offers rental pontoons and kayaks and conducts guided fishing tours.
“People have bigger priorities than booking a boat,” he said.
Jacob is planning to open May 15 as usual and hopes that, by then, boating while adhering to social distancing rules can resume.
In Wayzata, Rich Anderson, owner of North Shore Marina, said none of his customers have asked for refunds on their boat slips yet.
“I might be the total optimist in the group. I really don’t think it’s going to have an impact,” Anderson said, adding that some customers told him boating will be their release during a time when most everything else remains shut down.
“There’s so many pent-up Minnesotans with boating fever,” he said. “I feel really blessed to be in this business. We can provide a little enjoyment, an escape.”