The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Balancing tourism with safety


June 5, 2020


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Hurley — Area communities have somewhat of a bipolar tourism message that both encourages and discourages travel during a summer season still under the yoke of a COVID-19 pandemic.

Tourism generates more than $21 million annually for Iron County, according to Kelly Klein, coordinator of Iron County Economic Development. The industry employs more than 250 people with full-time-equivalent jobs which comprises a big segment of the local economy, whether it’s from lodging, restaurant, gas or events, he said.

“We are all impacted by it,” Klein said.

The concern is that the county would like to see people travel, he said. The county would also like to see visitors and community safe as well.

“It’s a balancing act,” Klein said. “At the end of the day it’s still hard to tell what to expect.”

Promoting an area now requires a message about the importance of staying safe, practicing social distancing and traveling as little as possible, he said. Tourism is a big part of the area economy and it impacts a lot of local businesses and it’s difficult to guess how many people will come with all the canceled events.

“Just what that will look like in Iron County is still a lot of conjecture and we’re all trying to get our heads around it,” Klein said. “We are meeting and trying to figure out what it will look like.”

The cloudy crystal ball makes it difficult to make a local prediction but Klein said two Marquette Law School polls of 811 registered Wisconsin voters taken in March and May show an increase in confidence about going out more, but with lingering concern about opening too soon.

Around 15% of respondents said they lost a job in the May poll, as compared to 9% in March.

Another 26% said someone in the family had lost a job.

The poll showed 69% felt it was still appropriate to close schools and businesses and restrict public gatherings, compared to 86% in March.

“That is still a pretty big number and shows there is some apprehension out there and that people are still a little bit nervous,” Klein said.

Around 77% of those polled said they are now comfortable with the idea of visiting homes of friends or family while 56% are more comfortable with shopping at retail or department stores. Fewer than 50% of respondents said they were comfortable with attending worship services, eating at restaurants, attending sports events, concerts or plays.

The follow-up survey in May shows that people are feeling penned up from two months at home, Klein said. People want to travel long distances again but may delay plans over COVID-19.

Cheaper gas will make in-state travel more likely than distant destinations, he said. The in-state and regional vacation travel should be a boost to northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, he said.

“As we are moving forward I think we have to send that (safe) message,” Klein said. “We’re open, but we want to be sure that you are safe and we hope that when you visit you are also being safe.”

The state fishing opener brought a lot of people to northern Wisconsin even with the restrictions still in effect, he said. People were good about distancing, he said.

It serves no purpose to criticize cancelations such as Fourth of July and other summer events, Klein said. Those events bring a lot of people in close proximity and only the local community will know best to cancel or not.

“I am not judging whether that is good or bad but the thought process there is that maybe the events with large groups of people are not the best thing to do right now,” he said.

On the other side of the spectrum, the county’s best recreation assets, the motorized and non-motorized trail systems, provide plenty of room for people to recreate alone or as a family and practice social distancing.

“Those types of activities might do okay,” Klein said.

Iron County is supporting local businesses with resource links on its website. From there, a business owner can identify a link related to their industry to update themselves on changes to COVID-19 guidelines for reopening.

“There are a number of reasons to implement best practices,” Klein said. “We want the employees to be safe and we want the customers to be safe.”

Implementing guidelines will also mitigate potential liabilities, he said.

The website has marketing resources for businesses working through the COVID-19. Promoting the fact that businesses are reopening safely can help them to be more profitable, he said.

“I think that will be quite important for business as we move forward,” Klein said. “Businesses want to assure the customers that they are running business safety.”

Klein said most of the business owners he has spoken with say they are taking it slow and not planning to fully open right away. They are feeling their way through it.

A U.S. Travel Association news release on April 20 said the travel industry amounted to a third of all jobs lost nationwide from the coronavirus impact. That is nine times greater than the travel industry shutdown following the 9/11 attacks.

By the end of April, declines in travel will result in the loss of 8 million jobs out of approximately 24 million jobs in the entire U.S. economy, according to the report. Travel spending losses are on track to top half a trillion dollars by the end of 2020.


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