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Economy & Business

Cities Prepare For Fewer Tourists On Memorial Day Weekend Amid Coronavirus Pandemic


Memorial Day plans - cookouts, road trips, laying out at the beach - are all being canceled or changed because of COVID-19. Here's how bad it is. For the first time in 20 years, AAA didn't even bother to release their yearly forecast of how many Americans they think will travel. Last year it was 43 million of us. Tourist towns don't know what to expect, and we're going to hear from three, starting in Reno, Nev. Here's Bert Johnson of Nevada Public Radio.

BERT JOHNSON, BYLINE: Tahoe and Reno aren't just national tourist destinations. They're international attractions. The Tahoe Transportation District estimates more than 10 million people visit the region every year. Kursten Graham welcomed some of those visitors to his business, Reno Bike Project. It started offering rental bikes about three years ago so tourists can explore the area's world-class scenery.

KURSTIN GRAHAM: If the temperatures are over 70 degrees in Reno, we're going to be busy. When the pandemic hit and things slowed down, we were right at that temperature change. I had just received my rental bikes, and they have yet to touch dirt.

JOHNSON: Across the state line in California, Placer County supervisor Cindy Gustafson says normally at this time of year, things are just starting to pop. She calls summer the local economy's stabilizing zone.

CINDY GUSTAFSON: Many of the businesses can't rely on winter because sometimes we don't get snow.

JOHNSON: Gustafson's district includes communities around Lake Tahoe. Tourism is a billion-dollar industry here. But since the pandemic shutdowns took effect two months ago, that's come to a screeching halt. Once things do start to open up, Gustafson and others predict fewer visitors will be flying in from far away.

Back in Nevada, it's casinos that are the state's biggest industry. And when Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses to close in March, they went from boom to bust overnight. David Farahi is chief operating officer of Monarch Casino and Resort, which owns the Atlantis Casino. It had been open 24 hours a day, never closing.

DAVID FARAHI: Our Atlantis property doesn't even have locks on the doors.

JOHNSON: Farahi's not sure when they'll be open again. Meanwhile, Cindy Gustafson says while hotels are still closed, restaurants are starting to reopen with new guidelines around social distancing.

GUSTAFSON: Both sides want to be protected from each other (laughter).

JOHNSON: And doing that during what should be the kickoff of the busiest tourist time is a significant challenge. For NPR News, I'm Bert Johnson in Reno.

TAYLOR WIZNER, BYLINE: And I'm Taylor Wizner in Northern Michigan, where many small businesses relying on summer visitors are facing challenges, too. Governer Gretchen Whitmer allowed some of the region and the Upper Peninsula to open, but many struggle with how they'll attract visitors this year. On a cloudless 75-degree May afternoon, the Silver Lake Dunes are quiet. It's very unusual. Normally, the roaring sound of dune buggies speeding 40 miles an hour up sandy hills would echo everywhere.

Silver Lake's dunes are the only ones east of the Mississippi allowing vehicles. They attract thousands of people from all over the world to the small coastal town of Mears. Today at Silver Lake Buggy Rentals, some workers are repairing vehicles.


WIZNER: Owner Judi Rippee says they won't be in service this weekend. That's because Michigan's governor hasn't opened the dunes for recreation yet. Rippee says some respective (ph) tourists aren't taking it so well when she breaks the news to them.

JUDI RIPPEE: I don't want to be the brunt of their anger, so I think we're going to lock the doors and go home and hide.

WIZNER: Rippee won't open until the governor's stay-at-home order expires late next week. She says by then, she'll have lost more than $100,000 in canceled reservations.

RIPPEE: It's just a great, big, giant black hole with a question mark in it. I'm just real curious to see. It depends on how well we do here, if we open at all. And if we don't, thank God our house is paid for.

WIZNER: The iconic Mackinac Island is permitted to open this weekend but won't. The city council just voted to stop its ferry service to the quaint village where horses far outnumber cars. City council member Steven Moskwa says the only sounds on the road now are the horse-drawn wagons.

STEVEN MOSKWA: From one end to the other, from down by the Lake View to down toward Marquette Park, I only see four people.

WIZNER: Moskwa says some shops will open next weekend, with hotels possibly opening later in June. Steve Wheatley (ph), a bank regulator who lives in a suburb of Detroit, says he's bringing his family to his Harbor Springs cottage for the weekend.

STEVE WHEATLEY: We understand how people probably feel who live there year-round about people coming from the Detroit area. But we're going to adhere to the rules, do all the things that we were doing down here except maybe enjoy a little bit more of the freedoms that are opening up in the northern part of the state.

WIZNER: He'll join others anxiously awaiting a visit to their summer tourist spot. For NPR News in Traverse City, I'm Taylor Wizner.

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: I'm Liz Baker on Honeoye Lake, one of the smallest of central New York's Finger Lakes, where summer residents have already arrived. You can tell by looking out on the water at night. You see a circle of reflected lights from boats, docks and summer homes - something you usually don't see until after Memorial Day. This year some summer residents came back even before the snow had stopped falling, here to shelter in place away from regions with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases.

TERRY OHLWEILER: We've been going to our summer cottage every weekend since the first weekend in April, which we have never done ever (laughter).

BAKER: Terri Ohlweiler and her family have been coming from a Buffalo suburb every weekend. There's less COVID here and more to do while isolating.

OHLWEILER: There's nothing better than being on a lake.

BAKER: The Finger Lakes region is in stage one of reopening, which means restaurants and bars are still closed, as are most other seasonal businesses that would normally reopen for the tourism influx. Kayleigh Woodard's kayak rental business on Canandaigua Lake is allowed to open this weekends with some precautions.

KAYLEIGH WOODARD: So the kayaks are going to have to be sanitized after the customers get out of the water as well as the life jackets.

BAKER: She'd typically do brisk business from tourists arriving from Rochester, Syracuse, even New York City.

LUKE LESZYK: When it comes to wineries and lodging, we can't ask the locals to help us or support us. We're 100% reliant on tourism.

BAKER: Luke Leszyk owns a now-empty motel with stunning views of Seneca Lake. He's also the mayor of Watkins Glen, a historic village full of restaurants and seasonal businesses catering to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who come here for wine tasting tours, food festivals and NASCAR races.

LESZYK: To use an analogy, we're like farmers. We only have one season to grow our crop. We lose that, we don't make it up in the winter.

BAKER: On the other hand, he points out that the region has been relatively unscathed by COVID-19. There's been under 3,500 cases for an area spanning nine counties. Leszyk is trying to take the pandemic in stride.

LESZYK: We hope that this is just one summer. And we can look back on it, and we can say, do you remember that summer of 2020 that we all made it through it, and our businesses survived?

BAKER: And he says he'd rather sacrifice now than suffer a second wave in the fall that would shut down leaf-peeping season, a time even more important for bringing in tourism dollars.

KING: That was NPR's Liz Baker in Honeoye, N.Y., York, Bert Johnson in Reno, Nev., and Taylor Wizner in northern Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENEMIES' "NIGHTHAWKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.