This time of year is typically the slowest for business owners in Cook County, at the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region along Lake Superior’s North Shore: As the snow melts, the skiers stop coming, and business owners prepare for the busy summer season, when cars full of tourists pack Highway 61 on their way Up North.
This year, it’s not clear when the tourists will come. The resorts are closed amid COVID-19 concerns, and the county has issued a travel advisory asking people who come to Cook County to self-isolate for two weeks to make sure they don’t bring the virus. (With no ICU beds and just one ventilator, Cook County would be unable to handle a large number of COVID-19 cases.)
Cook County, population: 5,400, is one of just a handful of Minnesota counties without any confirmed cases of the virus (though that doesn’t mean it’s not there). But Cook has been hit hard by COVID-19 in another way: jobs. The tourism-dependent county has seen unemployment applications roughly equivalent to 29 percent of the size of its 2019 workforce since mid-March, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development — a higher share than any other county in the state.
“Our economy is at least 80 percent tourism, and tourism involves lots of people moving. When you shut down an economy, that’s the first thing you shut down is movement, so we are effectively shut down economically,” said Jim Boyd, the executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce.
Lutsen Mountains, a 75-room resort, ski and summer activities facility overlooking Lake Superior, closed in March, cutting its ski season short by a month or more. Other resorts on the North Shore, like Lutsen Resort and Bluefin Bay, which house hundreds each during busy times, are closed, too.
Charles Skinner, co-president and co-owner of Lutsen Mountains Corporation, says the closure of lodging facilities is hurting not just the ski and hospitality industry, but spilling over into small businesses.
“If we’re not able to reopen, there’s going to be many, many businesses going out of business, which is going to really harm the economy and people,” he said.
Up in Grand Marais, the Gun Flint Tavern, a brewpub with 35 employees, tried to do to-go food early on amid COVID-19 concerns, but owner Susan Gecas said there weren’t enough orders to keep it up. Besides, Gecas said, she was worried about her own exposure risk as a 65-year-old, and it would be difficult to run things from afar.
“I didn’t want to take my chances, with hurting my staff, hurting myself,” she said.
The restaurant shut down, and the food left in the kitchen was divvied up among employees, who filed for unemployment.
It’s unclear how long things will be closed. Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, which began March 27, currently goes through May 4. The governor has said the economy won’t reopen all at once.
As of last week, Gecas said she had applied for a small business loan but hadn’t heard back. She had also applied for a home equity loan.
“I’m going to bet my house and a piece of property I have on this,” she said. She thinks she can hold on for a couple months, but if things start up again slowly, with people fearful of being around others, it could spell trouble.
“I just hope we can come back to being a good host for the rest of the state,” Gecas said.
Cook County isn’t alone in Minnesota in terms of coronavirus having an outsized impact on jobs.
Many of the places with the hardest-hit workforces have tourism-based economies, like Mahnomen County, west of Bemidji, said Carson Gorecki, a labor market information analyst for the northeast region of the state at DEED. There, 27 percent of the workforce has applied for unemployment. In Cass County, in the Brainerd Lakes area, 22 percent of the workforce has filed for unemployment.
That’s far more than the share of workers who have filed for unemployment in some counties along Minnesota’s western border, where applications account for roughly 5 percent of the workforce. In the seven-county Twin Cities metro, the share ranges between 14 percent and 18 percent.
Skinner, at Lutsen Mountains, says that with the recreation and hospitality industries hard-hit by COVID-19, industry groups are working on protocols for safely opening amid COVID-19.
At Lutsen, he hopes to see some restrictions lift so visitors can come back, and sees a path toward opening for the summer season while taking precautions against the virus: The gondola, chair lifts and the alpine slide could all be run with social distancing in mind, he said.
“Family members who came together can be the only ones near each other,” he said.
Boyd said he wishes officials in the state’s capital would take note of how COVID-19 is affecting the economy on the North Shore.
“I very much wish that officials in St. Paul would spend some time drilling down into the economy and focusing some light on specialized economies like ours and recognize that we have some pretty specialized needs in getting through this,” he said.
The local business and medical communities have begun to talk about how to get the county’s economy open again once state restrictions begin to lift, Boyd said. Grocery stores have adapted to taking orders by phone or email, filling them and having them ready for pick-up or delivery, Boyd said.
“Now we have to take that model and apply it to the other businesses.”