Until about a week ago, Harald Lohn of Prior Lake, Steve Piragis of Ely and retired Minnesota Sen. Bob Lessard of St. Paul had little in common.
Now they’re all in the same boat, as it were, following the shuttering of the U.S. and Canadian border at midnight March 21.
Chaos and uncertainty followed, perhaps especially in northern Minnesota, where retail and other stores in International Falls and Warroad that regularly cater to Canadians have seen their businesses decline.
If the border remains closed, additional cash-flow falloffs will be realized, because countless American anglers have already booked fishing and other adventure-based trips in Ontario and other Canadian provinces this summer. Many have placed deposits with outfitters.
Now those plans are in limbo. Not just for the would-be northbound vacationers, perhaps tens of thousands of whom are Minnesotans, but for business owners on both sides of the border who depend on tourism dollars.
Phones of Ontario tourism operators have rung virtually nonstop since the border closure’s announcement, said Laurie Marcil of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, a trade group in North Bay, Ontario.
“We’re hoping our 200 member businesses can survive the spring with the border closed,’’ Marcil said. “We’re advising them to attempt to rebook their American clients to later dates this summer, if necessary, or even to rebook them to next year. But things could change quickly, and the border could open up again. We’ll have to wait and see.’’
Here are snapshots of six Minnesotans whose businesses and/or personal plans will be affected by the closing if it continues into summer:
• Steve Piragis, owner, Piragis Northwoods Co., Ely (piragis.com): “If our clients can’t enter Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side of the boundary waters, we’ll redirect them into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the U.S. side. We’ve already contacted our clients about the situation. We’re also offering clients who want to bypass Ely and go directly into the BWCA the option of us meeting them at their wilderness entry points. We’ve been in business 40 years, with 20 full-time employees. We’re trying to keep most of them on the payroll. But we have expenses, including $200,000 for new canoes.’’
• Harald Lohn, Prior Lake, owner with his family of KaBeeLo Lodge and Outposts in northwest Ontario (kabeelo.com): “We’re about 75 percent booked already for the summer, beginning in mid-May. We’ve gotten a few calls from clients. We tell them it’s our intent to operate this summer, but that whatever happens, they will be made whole. Normally I am at the lodge May 1. In a rush, we could get ready in one week. Tourism is big in Canada and the government wants us to operate. So that’s in our favor.’’
• Bob Lessard, owner with his son, Brett, of Lessard’s Fly-In Fishing Outpost on Otukamamoan Lake in northwest Ontario (lessardoutdoors.com): “Our first group isn’t due until June 14, so we’re hopeful the border is open by then. We lease our boats and motors, and those payments are due every month, and like other Canadian outfitters, we hope clients don’t cancel. As for prospective clients, unfortunately most of them won’t book until this is settled.”
• Nancy Burkes, Hibbing, cabin owner on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods: “Typically we open our Sioux Narrows cabin as early as possible in May and close it when Minnesota’s deer season starts. I’ve been going to Lake of the Woods since I was 11, camping for many years before we bought a cabin. That’s where I spend my summers. The kids and grandkids love it there, too. It’s like deer camp, except it’s a fishing camp. It’ll be a real loss if we can’t get there.”
• Bob Neuenschwander, owner, Border Bob’s in International Falls (borderbobs.com): “Anyone crossing the border at International Falls has to drive 20 feet from our business, so it’s a big deal, the border closing. I’m 71 years old and have seen a lot. We can survive one pass of anything. But if the virus comes back again or doesn’t go away, that could change everything. I’m staying on top of it. For now, all we can do is hunker down.”
• Dick Myers, Warroad, cabin owner on the U.S. side of Lake of the Woods: “We’ve had our cabin on Flag Island near the Northwest Angle since 1934. We try to get there the first week of May. I’ll stay all summer, coming back to Warroad every two weeks for supplies. The trip takes about 2½ hours one way and I have to travel through Canada to get there. Right now, I’ve got another problem. Like a lot of Minnesotans, I’m in Arizona and unsure how I’ll get home. Usually a friend flies down and drives back with me. But with the virus, those plans are up in the air.”