A northern Michigan island ponders opening up for tourist season.
By Patrick Sullivan | May 16, 2020
On a sunny Friday afternoon on the first of May, the Emerald Isle, the massive 130-foot car ferry capable of carrying 294 passengers, 15 vehicles, cargo, and a semi-truck, completed its 32-mile journey and pulled into port at Beaver Island on its first trip of the season.
There was plenty of freight, but just nine passengers walked ashore.
It was a fitting start to the 2020 tourism season.
Across northern Michigan, as people look toward summer and wonder how things are going to get going again, what tourism will look like, and how people can stay safe, those questions are amplified on the island because of its isolation and lack of services.
Northern Express talked to business owners, civic leaders and island residents about what they expect in the coming months.
AN EVOLUTION OF THINKING
Even though that first boat only carried a handful of people, the opening of the ferry season meant an altogether new chapter for the island had begun.
“I think probably just everybody recognized this moved us into a new phase of the whole thing,” said Kathleen McNamara, St. James Township supervisor.
Indeed, sentiment on the island over the question of when — or if — visitors should arrive went from alarm and outrage at the beginning of April, to, apparently, acceptance and calm by May, at least according to the online Beaver Island forum.
On April 3, a summer resident posted on the forum that they would be arriving by private plane in a few days, that they would park in private hangar, and that they would use their own vehicle to reach their cabin, where they would stay isolated for the duration of the visit.
What followed was outrage.
One user posted: “why? why? why?--it's posts like this that scare the heck out of me! The Island has been working hard to protect itself and the at-risk people and the care providers, health center, EMS, etc. etc. We ALL need to do what we can to keep the Island as safe as possible.”
A few commenters came to the defense of the vacation-home owner, but most who commented expressed some level of concern or anger about the impending visit.
A month later, as the Beaver Island Boat Company ferry prepared to open its season and bring over the first visitors — initially, only people who own property on the island — news of the ferry's developing plans was met on the online forum with a big, loud “meh.”
McNamara said she noticed a change in attitude on the island as summer came closer and the residents within this tourist economy have grappled with how to survive this crisis.
“I think that was probably an evolution, people adjusting to what this all means,” McNamara said. “We certainly want to be careful. We want people to come, and certainly anybody who owns property here, they should come.”
It’s unclear when the next phase of opening up — when vacationers who’ve rented cottages or motel rooms or spots at campgrounds are able to visit — will occur. That will require new orders from Gov. Whitmer, and like everyone in the state, no one knows when to expect them.
Many residents and officials on Beaver Island hope direction happens sooner rather than later.
“I think [the restaurant and motel owners] main concern will be to make sure that if and when they do open up, they are doing it in a safe manner,” she said.
TAKING SAFETY SERIOUSLY
The scant number of people who showed up on that first boat is not a good indication in the interest people have in coming to the island right now, said Paul Cole, executive director of the Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce.
Cole said he’s been fielding 10 or 15 calls and emails every day from potential visitors who wonder how and when they might be able to come. The chamber isn’t marketing the island to tourists yet this year, he said, yet bookings are filling up for July — many from people who have never been to the island before.
There is something about Beaver Island, its remoteness, isolation, and uncrowdedness, Cole said, that is especially alluring right now, given the world’s current state.
“People, I think, are kind of looking to travel, but not necessarily get on a cruise or fly to Europe. This is a great place to be — to unwind at a social distance, take your family, and you can have lots of space on different beaches and be safe and enjoy it.” he said.
As long as safety is emphasized, and visitors go along with the rules, he doesn’t think a small wave of tourism will pose a danger. That’s not to say that some island residents would rather see no visitors. That’s always true, even though the island’s economy depends on tourism, but some are more reticent about outsiders now.
“I think there’s always a percentage of people in any community who are really, really, really cautious. There are some people here like that,” Cole said. “The general conversation is, we can’t completely shut down our economy. How do we reopen in a safe way?”
What does that safety look like? There are miles of public beach, especially for those willing to hike, that will be deserted even on the island’s busiest days. The Beaver Island Boat Company has established strict rules about wearing masks and maintaining social distance. They will limit passenger numbers to ensure the ferry does not get crowded. They are even, for the first time, allowing passengers to sit in their vehicles, inside the hold, during the voyage.
“They’ve taken it very seriously,” Cole said. “They need to protect their staff, but it also sends the message that the people on the island are taking the precautions seriously, too.”
“PRETTY MUCH ALL QUARANTINED AT THIS POINT”
The island’s two airports have adopted strict safety protocols, too, Cole said.
Angela Welke, who owns Island Airways with her husband, said they’ve taken strides to make sure passengers, pilots, and staff are safe.
“It’s totally a touch-free system. You don’t have to interact with anyone,” Welke said. “If people use common sense and take care of each other, people can start doing business in what is our new normal.”
Welke is hopeful that her small air service company will weather this crisis, despite traffic being way down. Typically, the company would transport 1,600 passengers in April. This year, it’s served 200. But May is looking up; the Island Airways phone is ringing.
The air service has managed through the down period by carrying freight, which increased this year because the boat started running later than usual — May 1 instead of mid-April — due to the virus.
“I am certainly cautiously optimistic right now,” Welke said. “I feel incredibly lucky and thankful that we happen to be an airline with freight contracts.”
There’s been a lot of confusion on the island about a decree from the townships that visitors and people returning to the island should quarantine for 14 days. It’s not clear what that means, Welke said.
“The two-week quarantine has been somewhat misunderstood here on the island. It’s a best practice, and it’s a recommendation,” she said. “This is the conversation I’ve had the most in the last six weeks: What does that mean?”
Welke said the “quarantine” is essentially a matter of what everyone in Michigan is already doing — staying at home except for going out to get necessities or enjoy some outdoor activities, all at a safe distance from others.
“We’re all pretty quarantined at this point,” she said. “It’s not like we can go down to the Shamrock and belly up to the bar.”
LIMITED MEDICAL RESOURCES
William Kohls, the supervisor of the island’s Peaine Township, agreed that summer cottage owners are welcome back when they want to come. He said he is also frustrated that no one knows when things will open up more or when more people will be able to come. It makes planning difficult.
“I think most [summer residents] are still coming,” said Kohls. “The real big question in my mind is what the governor does on short-term rentals.”
Kohls said a remarkable system has sprung up on the island for the distribution of necessities, one that prevents contact between people and happened organically. At McDonough’s, the island grocery store, staff takes orders and payment over the phone or online, and the orders are left on tables outside the store, tagged with the names of the customers. The Shamrock offers curbside meals. The gas station — Island Energies — sells fuel, food, snacks, and alcohol over the phone, and when people pull up, the pumps get authorized, and the orders are set out. There is takeout breakfast and lunch at Dalwhinnie’s. Whiskey Point Brewing Co. opens three days a week to fill up growlers at the door. Beaver Island Transit, the county-run public transportation system, is making free deliveries to homes while the stay-at-home order is in place.
Kohls said he is worried about what will happen to those services when and if a lot of visitors show up.
“We may need to organize some volunteers,” Kohls said. “They are able to do those things now, but with a substantially larger population on the island, I don’t know if they can continue to do that.”
Like anywhere else, Kohl is also worried about what an outbreak of coronavirus on the island would mean for its healthcare system.
Everywhere the virus has spread, hospitals become overwhelmed and have to cut back other services.
“Compared to a lot of places, we have very limited medical resources on the island,” Kohls said. “If one of the nurse practitioners gets infected, our medical staff is down 50 percent.”
SAFEGUARDS NEED TO BE MAINTAINED
Joe Moore runs “Beaver Island News on the Net,” a subscription-based online news source for the island. Before that, he was a teacher and an EMT on the island for decades.
Moore’s brother, Neil Feck, died of the COVID-19 virus in April, shortly after returning home to Traverse City from a cruise. Moore said he probably takes the virus more seriously than some others because it hit so close to home. It was a scary thing to watch: His brother returned from Florida having had a great time, and a week later he was on a ventilator at Munson Medical Center.
“I’m not a liberal, but I am certainly not a far-right person saying ‘Open this place up,’” he said. “I’m a person who believes in sciences and math.”
Moore, who is 69 and considers himself at-risk for complications, was concerned about the virus back in March and decided for the first time in years not to cover the island’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations for his online publication.
“I just said, ‘Why would I expose myself to that?’” he said.
Moore estimates the party weekend saw about a third of the people it usually does; like him, many people were concerned about exposure to the virus.
Moore said he’s not too concerned about summer people returning to the island because he said he believes that the officials from the two townships have done a great job getting prepared for it.
What he’s worried about is what might happen as the summer season develops and people start to get more casual about the virus and let down their guard.
“My biggest concern is that somebody won’t know that they carry the virus, and they come over this summer, and things get loose — not like they are now — and we get hit,” he said. “My concern is only about how people actually do the self-distancing.”
NEED TO BE TOGETHER IN THE WOODS
Unlike most big northern Michigan events, the Beaver Island Music Festival has not been canceled. Organizers will reconsider on June 1, and at that point decide to call it off or to carry on with plans — with the caveat that the July event could be canceled at the last minute, said Carol Burton, the festival’s executive director.
“We just think that people need hope. We need hope and for us to be together in the woods,” Burton said. “We’re going to take a wait-and-see approach. We don’t see any harm in waiting to see what happens.”
Burton, who with her husband also runs St. James Boat Shop and four vacation rental properties, said that the quarantine is especially tough for a place like Beaver Island because tourism is its economic engine.
“The basic fact is we can’t survive if we don’t have an economy. We can’t just survive on what’s here,” she said.
Take vacation rentals — Burton estimates she and her husband have already lost $15,000–$20,000 in revenue as people sheltered at home in March, April, and now May. She hopes to be able to resume vacation rentals in June. She can’t imagine what it would mean if she lost July and August.
“It could force people to leave the island. Some people rely on that income to live here, and it could be seriously impactful. We’re hoping the restaurants can open again. I know they are seriously hurting as well,” she said. “This may not impact us this summer, but this fall and winter, it will be devastating if we can’t get back to business.”
Burton said that her four rental properties are booked pretty well through the summer, and that so far, there have been no cancelations for June, July, or August. She believes it makes sense that even amid the scariness of the crisis, people would want to get to a place like Beaver Island, because it’s not crowded, and it’s not hard to stay isolated.
“That is a benefit of Beaver Island — it’s very easy to stay away from people here and still enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “I just think we definitely are a unique place, and we’ve really done our job well of taking precautions, and I think we’re still going to be a great place to visit — and even more so this summer. And it’s important to support all our tourist places.”
TOY MUSEUM CLOSED
Whatever word comes from the governor’s office in the coming weeks, one famous island attraction will remain closed.
“I’m not going to be open this summer,” said Mary Scholl, owner of the Beaver Island Toy Museum & Store on Paradise Bay, an institution of antique toys, oddities, and artwork set amid an old house and sprawling garden.
For one thing, Scholl said she could never keep her inventory of tens of thousands of small toys sterilized with crowds of tiny hands coming through every day. For another thing, she doesn’t like her chances if she gets the virus.
“I’m 81, and if I got sick, that would be the end of the store, so we’ll let this year go by,” Scholl said. “I’ll just huddle back in the garden and stay there, put a sign on the door: ‘Stay Away.’”
Have a story idea or tip about what’s happening in your northern Michigan neighborhood or town? Email Northern Express reporter Pat Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.