LANSING — The signs of Michigan’s coronavirus summer were stark: empty bike shop floors, a three-fold increase in recreational vehicle rentals, stuffed trails, campgrounds and parking lots.
Michiganders stayed closer to home this summer, trading trips to faraway places for closer, in-state destinations like state parks and lakeside towns.
It was a busy season for outdoor equipment retailers and local tourist spots, but travelers who relaxed about coronavirus rules while on the road may have contributed to COVID-19 spikes in the state.
Shemeika Barney saw the pandemic’s impact on tourism through her Lansing travel agency Exclusive Travel N More.
Normally, summer customers are choosing cruise lines, hotels in Florida and Myrtle Beach. But international and out-of-state travel is riskier or off-limits during a pandemic.
In 2020, it’s all about the RV.
Barney estimated demand for RVs, vans and big cars tripled this year as customers chose destinations within driving distance.
“A lot of people were going to Traverse City, to the beach,” she said. “They were going up toward Mackinac, Muskegon, Lake Michigan, the Chicago area.”
State park attendance soars this summer
Her customers weren’t the only ones seeking local, outdoor-oriented travel.
Visits to Michigan state parks surged this summer, said Ron Olson, chief of the Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation division. He credits the coronavirus, which caused people to turn away from riskier crowded or indoor activities and toward more spacious places, like parks.
After campgrounds opened June 22, weekday camping skyrocketed to 45% over last year. With weekends included, camping increased about 30%.
“The visible tourist-type places, like Tahquamenon Falls and Ludington and Holland and Grand Haven and places like that, continue to be very heavily used,” Olson said. “We’ve seen other parks, particularly in the UP, have experienced a clear uptick in their visitation all summer. More than they’re used to.”
Parks workers have to periodically close the gates at some of Michigan’s most popular spots, like Holland State Park, because of “extraordinarily large crowds,” he said.
The closures are not just occasional. Belle Isle in Detroit has had to shut down for a few hours almost every Saturday and Sunday. The park routinely fills to capacity.
Tourists flooded the Traverse City area in May after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced northern Michigan would have fewer restrictions, Grand Traverse County Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger said.
Coronavirus was not prevalent up north at the time.
But cases spiked in August.
Travel related to some August coronavirus cases in Grand Traverse
Grand Traverse County had 168 residents contract COVID-19 in May through July, about 1.3 cases per day. The county had 147 cases in August alone, an average of five cases per day.
About 21% of those August cases were tied to travel, either because residents contracted the disease when they traveled outside of the county or because visitors contracted it while traveling, Hirschenberger said.
Travelers’ behavior is the most important factor in whether they contract COVID-19 or contribute to its spread up north, Hirschenberger said.
“We do tend to get a lot of bachelorette and bachelor parties up here, those kinds of group things,” she said. “Graduation parties. And a lot of exposures and a lot of cases in restaurants, where workers or even people who went to the restaurant ended up in an exposure, and also some youth programs.”
She pointed to a roughly 35-person outbreak related to a hockey tournament. People from eight counties, including Ingham, fell sick.
“It wasn’t just the hockey playing, it was all the affiliated activities” like a group barbecue or parking lot get-togethers, she said. “I think people started to let their guard down.”
An increase in travel to places with more options for outdoor activities isn’t a bad thing as long as visitors are patient and careful, Olson said.
Proper pandemic park behavior
Olson explained proper pandemic park behavior: Respect other visitors. Be patient on the trails. Be flexible about your plans, in case a busy park is closed. Wear your mask indoors and on crowded trails. Be smart.
“Staying in good physical health and being outdoors, nothing but good can come from that, provided that people take the proper precautions,” he said.
The travel restrictions also mean more people are getting exposed to the cool places nearby, said Steve Sheppard, founder of Ecopassports, a travel agency geared toward students.
“I guess the one silver lining is that many American destinations that might have otherwise been ignored by all kinds of travelers — young, old, in-between — they’re being rediscovered, or maybe being discovered for the first time,” he said.
His daughter, a Grand Ledge High School senior, and her friends were among those who planned a tour of Michigan instead of a trip abroad. They visited Grand Haven, home of one of Michigan’s heavily trafficked state parks.
Increased park attendance boosted revenues badly needed by the parks division, which has dozens of expensive projects planned to combat the high Great Lakes water levels. Revenues are still about 10% under last year because of coronavirus-related closures this spring, but catching up.
However, more people means more work. It means more trash. It means more cleaning.
“That’s been a problem,” Olson said. “That sometimes comes when more people use places, things get a little bit sloppy. We need to have everybody do their part.”
The heftier workload is even harder to manage with a smaller-than-normal staff. The DNR was staffed at only 83% of its normal summer ranks because a state government hiring freeze delayed efforts to hire seasonal workers for the busy time.
Like park attendance, outdoor equipment sales have skyrocketed.
A rush on bikes like never before
The sales floor at Eric’s Cycle & Fitness is normally crammed with bikes. Not this year. The store is nearly cleaned out because of a coronavirus-fueled summer rush.
“Nobody in the industry has ever seen this,” sales manager Dirk Bus said. “I was in the business back in the ’70s, after the Arab oil embargo. It got pretty crazy then. Still, nothing like this.”
With indoor and crowded spaces largely off-limits, people are turning to bikes, Bus said.
Manufacturers can’t keep up with demand. Bike stores across the country are out of stock.
The less-expensive comfort bikes are the most sought after, but they’re long gone. Customers at Eric’s have turned to high-end road bikes or tune-ups on old ones instead.
In June, the south Lansing store even started selling refurbished used bikes as a way to satisfy some of the summer demand.
“It’s impossible,” Bus said. “None of the main manufacturers have anything in the way of bikes until the 2021s start coming out, which will probably be in the next couple months.”
Outfitters should be prepared for a rush on winter gear, Olson said. He predicted people will continue looking for outdoor activities like hiking, snowshoeing and ice skating as the weather cools.
“We’ve seen a real strong uptick in our outdoor recreational vehicle riding,” he said. “That will continue in the fall through the winter. I expect you’ll see more people getting out on snowmobiles, that kind of stuff, than we’ve seen.”
Travel agent predicts coronavirus will determine winter getaway trends
The coronavirus will determine whether people travel outside the region, Barney said.
Although a few customers booked trips to places like Walt Disney World Resortin Florida before the school year started and others are eyeing winter Caribbean vacations, her hopes for winter are not high.
“I think there’s going to be another decrease in travel,” she said.
On the bright side, another coronavirus-caused hit to travel might mean a future vacation boom, Sheppard said.
“When study abroad comes back, it’s going to come back in a big way,” he said. “There’s so much pent-up demand. It’s almost like us having cabin fever in the spring multiplied by 100. These kids are just ready to go.”
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