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The summer that might never arrive. Northland resort towns worry pandemic could take devastating financial toll

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COOK, MN -- "End of February came to a sudden stop. We haven't had a single guest since," said Elbow Lake Lodge GM Lee Byram.

For 12 years, Byram has promoted his Lodge as the perfect place to social distance.

For the last two months, he has been the only one taking advantage of the resort's remote location.

"The 'Stay-at-Home' orders. Fear of the pandemic. A lot of cancellations in march," said Byram.

Not far from the town of Cook and the west end of Lake Vermilion, this area is flooded by resort vacationers and cabin folks from fishing opener to Labor Day.

A season that is off to a very bad start.

"There's been almost 80 nights of cancellations," said Byram. "You're looking at thousands and thousands of dollars. Every time the phone rings you get nervous."

And Byram is not alone.

According to the group Minnesota Resort Sales, occupancy is down 25% to 50% at family resorts statewide.

Numbers not even seen during the Great Recession.

A trend that could soon have a trickle down effect.

"It's going to effect resorts, but especially in a town like Cook, it effects other businesses as well," said Byram.

The summer attractions are obviously the lakes, resorts and cabins.

But all those thousands of visitors do all their shopping and a lot of eating right in Cook.

Summer has not even arrived, and Cook's top bait shop has already taken a hit from the pandemic.

"Everybody quit this year because they're worried about getting an infection," said Northwoods Bait and Tackle owner Joseph Kruchowski.

Six of Kruchowski's eight employees were afraid to come to work.

So for the first time in more than two decades, just he and his wife will run the summer show.

And that is not the only reason they are worried about the arrival of tourists.

"Usually you can hardly wait to see these people," said Kruchowski. "You want them to go to their cabins and have a good time, but now you almost wish they would stay home."

But that's not a luxury Kruchowski's business, or many of the others in Cook can afford.

"There's not enough people locally to support the businesses up here," said Kruchowski. "The tourists pay for everything. We've had two rainy years in a row where business was down horrendously, and the grocery store across the street, Zup's, burned down."

Covid-19 is the second hardship the Cook community has faced in a year and a half.

Zup's, the only grocery store within 20 miles, burned to the ground in November, 2018.

After a slow rebuild process, the store was supposed to open Monday.

But Covid forced manager Matt Zupancich to move the grand reopening to Wednesday.

"Middle of the week, quiet down, get people in and out of here and kind of get a rythm down of not everyone coming at once. With this it's just not ideal," said Zup's manager Matt Zupancich.

The store will take measures to make sure customers social distance.

But the timing makes the re-launch a leap of faith.

"Opening up with what was considered normal would be great," said Zupancich. "But this is a different animal altogether. We want to be busy year-round, but we go as the resorts go. So we'll see what happens. It's not just the grocery, it's all businesses in town."

Like the neighboring Subway, where business is down more than 50% for the year.

Owner and former Cook Chamber President Lisa Ojenen knows as well as anyone what would happen if those numbers continue.

"A lot of businesses will close," said Ojanen. "It will hurt them that bad.
If we don't have the snowbirds coming back, the tourism, the traffic to Canada for fishing, we won't survive."

So as the weather warms up, all eyes are on Elbow Lake Lodge and other resorts, where the ultimate waiting game is underway.

"The unkowns are a little scary," said Byram. "We just don't know what's going to happen."

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Dan Wolfe

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