Cindy Wannarka is conflicted when she looks at the line of northbound vehicles pulling boats behind them. Among them are the restless and the determined eager to celebrate a rite of spring — Minnesota’s fishing opener.

On the one hand, the rush of visitors to Minnesota’s lake country is a good sign that business is coming back in a place where tourism is the leading industry, said Wannarka, president and chief executive officer of the Leech Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

But she also looks at the influx and wonders: “Is Grandma going to be OK?”

Throngs of out-of-towners could spread the highly contagious coronavirus in small rural communities, putting older residents, who are more vulnerable to the deadly disease, at risk.

In part, that’s why state officials are urging anglers to fish in areas no farther than where they can travel to and from on a tank of gas during Saturday’s fishing opener, which comes during the governor’s stay-at-home order, recently extended to May 18.

“We know the more people travel, the more spread there is,” Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday. “This is not about defying an order I put out. This is about defying public health warnings. Stay close to home. Use common sense.”

That recommendation disappointed some resort owners in part because it came just days before the opener. But many also believe the message they’ve gotten is mixed.

Resorts recently were allowed to open. “Now they hear the message, ‘Don’t come up,’ ” Wannarka said. “That’s frustrating.”

Yet resort owners also understand that the virus could be a real threat to their residents and that a spike in local infections could overwhelm their small hospitals. They’re diligently revamping their businesses and adopting measures to protect customers and employees.

“It’s such a tough, tough place to be and know what is going to be best for all,” Wannarka said. “Do you wish for everything to open up but then you may lose more lives, or do you keep everyone super, super safe and lose more businesses?”

The pandemic already has taken a toll on many small-town businesses and resorts across the state.

Although Lake Mille Lacs will undoubtedly be busy during the weekend fishing opener, Tim Potoczny said his resort, McQuoid’s Inn, will be nearly empty because many of his usual customers will fish just for the day, then return home.

“I look forward to the day when the stay-at-home order is lifted and maybe people will feel free to travel,” he said. “That’s the hope.”

But right now, summer looks bleak. His business has lost about 75% of its upcoming summer volume because most of his cabins accommodate large groups. The need to social distance during the pandemic has prompted customers planning family reunions, bachelor parties and other large get-togethers to cancel, Potoczny said.

“It’s brutal,” he said.

Farther north, summer season cancellations have already cost Vermilion Dam Lodge about $50,000, said co-owner Ed Tausk. Those canceling include families disappointed that the resort won’t be opening its pool this summer.

But some cancellations mean new customers have found open dates on the resort’s reservation calendar, he said.

In some instances, the threat of COVID-19 has pushed business to Minnesota resorts. For example, a family forced to cancel a spring break trip to Florida might be pining for a summer getaway closer to home. Those who would have flown to summer destinations may drive north instead. And anglers who booked summer fishing trips in Canada, where the border is closed for now, will fish in Minnesota waters instead.

Tired of being cooped up, people are craving outdoor therapy, Tausk said.

So he and other resort owners are going to great lengths to disinfect areas and ensure social distancing.

“We’re going to continue to spread the message throughout the summer about the COVID guidelines that we need to follow and remind people about our delicate health care system here,” Tausk said. “We want our business to survive, but we don’t want to put our guests or staff at increased risk.”

At West Wind Resort on Upper Red Lake, the eight cabins are booked this weekend, but the bar will be closed and the restaurant limited to takeout meals. No more than three people at a time will be allowed in the resort’s bait shop, as well as in the fish cleaning room, said Kevin Waldo, part-owner of the family business.

Normally, their boat access would be busy throughout the opener. This year, they may limit it to 30 to 40 vehicles and call it a day, he said.

“We want people to be able to social distance,” Waldo said. “If we see people congregating, we’ll shut things down.”

It’s easy to get a false sense of security living in rural communities where the virus doesn’t have a foothold, he said. Beltrami County, where Upper Red Lake is, has had only six confirmed cases.

But a deluge of out-of-town visitors “sure makes us a little nervous,” he said. “I have a 92-year-old grandma. You have to take precautions.”


Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.