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Duluth's tourism industry faces continued pandemic challenges

The prospect of a mask mandate adds to business concerns.

Hairball concert in Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park
Over 8,000 fans fill Bayfront Festival Park for the Hairball concert on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / News Tribune
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DULUTH — A panel of local business leaders praised the resilience of the city's tourism industry during a virtual roundtable discussion with Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, on Wednesday afternoon.

Tom Sega, CEO of Duluth Pack, said his business has held up surprisingly well despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The outdoor industry is seeing some of the heights they’ve never seen in a generation,” he said.

“You look for positives in anything there is, and this pandemic has been horrible for every one of us, personally and professionally, but we have to look for nuggets of positivity and how we can adapt to that,” Sega said.

Tom Sega of Duluth Pack file
Tom Sega of Duluth Pack talks at the store in Canal Park in December 2017.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“The outdoor industry, I think, has done a great job of adapting to it and saying: You are welcome here, and yet you can be socially distanced. You can be with your family and not have to be close to other people,” he said.

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Laura Mullen, co-founder of Bent Paddle Brewing Co., said Duluth benefits from the wealth of outdoor activities it offers in all four seasons.

“Here at Bent Paddle, we, and a lot of our local businesses, have opened up our patios and really brainstormed different outdoor winter things, because there are different levels of (comfort) for all of our customers, and we want to make sure we have a space for them, where they will feel comfortable,” she said.

Bent Paddle's Laura Mullen
Bent Paddle co-founder Laura Mullen poses in the firm’s Lincoln Park brewery in February 2020.
Steve Kuchera / File / News Tribune

“Indoor or outdoor, we just roll with the different things that are happening, and that’s what I think entrepreneurialism is: figuring out what’s next and how do you address it gracefully, while keeping your customers at the forefront,” Mullen said.

But as COVID-19 cases multiply with the spread of the omicron variant, Matt Baumgartner, president of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged local businesses have grown rightfully concerned about the ongoing repercussions of the pandemic, particularly as local elected officials continue to discuss the prospect of adopting a mask mandate inside shared public spaces.

“I think there is a spectrum of concern, depending on your business model and who you serve and things like that,” he said.

Baumgartner described a sense of uncertainty in the local business community.

“If I think about some of our hospitality businesses, in general, you have a large number of staff members. So, because of that, you’re dealing with exposures and things that limit your already-tight workforce,” he said.

“Even if there is a demand that is to be met within the hospitality scene, a lot of businesses just don’t have the bandwidth within their workforce to meet that demand. So, hours are being reduced, and people have had to get creative to meet their periods of peak demand,” Baumgartner said.

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Baumgartner said he recognizes the challenges presented by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and expressed his sympathies for local health care providers who have had to deal with intensified work demands.

“I think everybody should do their part to help with what health care is going through. But I also know, with masking policies, often the onus of enforcement falls to front-line staff members who are the hosts or who are at the front of the hotel or retail shop. And, while the employer is supportive of masking staff, when someone comes in and says some insensitive things to employees, that can be a very difficult thing to shoulder as a young employee,” he said.

Despite his concerns, Baumgartner said: “I know we are resilient, and I know we can get through it. If everybody tries to pull together, we can get there.”

Outside of the Twin Cities, Duluth is Minnesota’s top tourist destination, noted Lauren Bennett McGinty, executive director of Explore Minnesota.

“We know that tourism is an important part of the local economy and that these businesses, among the many others in our state, are going to be huge contributors to our recovery,” she said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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