Almost exactly one year ago, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Minnesota and Cook County shut down. Businesses closed for several months, and many people feared that residents from larger cities would flee to the isolation of the north, bringing the virus with them and spreading it through the rural communities.
Fast forward to today. Cook County has had the fewest cases in the state. Its vaccination rate is the highest of all Minnesota counties. It is the only county in Minnesota and Wisconsin to not yet record a COVID-19-related death. And, despite an effort to stop entry to the county with a tree across Highway 61, Cook County saw one of its best years for tourism.
“It’s been truly a community response,” Grace Grinager, Cook County Public Health coordinator, said. “It was challenging sometimes to work through. No one had ever done this — had a tourist economy active during a pandemic — but being able to work together has been a strength.”
The county public health staff worked closely with Grand Portage Tribal Health, Sawtooth Mountain Clinic and North Shore Health Hospital and Care Center to create an emergency response team. They then teamed up with the county’s businesses and schools to ensure everyone’s voice was heard while creating a plan to keep the community safe.
When the county reopened its businesses in May and June — with mask mandates, guidance to stay “one moose apart” and other safety measures — solidarity among the community was a key factor to its success. Many business owners, including Jill Terrill, owner of Joy and Company in Grand Marais, worried that enforcing face coverings would cause tension between stores and customers. However, most business owners said they experienced few incidents of refusal to follow the rules.
“It helped that the expectation was the same at all the stores, so if you came to Grand Marais and you got pushback at one store, you pretty much knew that all of the others would be on the same page,” Terrill said.
Eric Humphrey, co-owner of the Lake Superior Trading Post in Grand Marais, said that when he did have to enforce the face-covering rule by insisting unmasked customers were served outside, he would sometimes get an eye roll, but other customers inside the store would thank him afterward. The Trading Post also requires customers to sanitize their hands immediately after entering the store.
“We’re been pretty fortunate, and I think we’ve been stricter than a lot of places,” Humphrey said.
In Grand Portage, the staff at the lodge and casino were trained on the expectations for employees and guests, which included masks, Plexiglas barriers, extra cleaning and sanitation for machines and public spaces, and capacity limits. The air-filtration system, originally installed when smoking was permitted in the whole casino, turns air over six times every hour with fresh air from outside.
Brian Sherburne, enterprise administrator at the Grand Portage Reservation, said the lodge and casino follow a health and sanitation plan created with research from Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities and the casino's insurance agency. Cook County Public Health conducted an audit on the plan, which the casino passed thanks to its attention to detail. Sherburne said it was a big relief to have reassurance that the facility was safe.
“The health community and the business community don’t often overlap in everyday life," Sherburne said. "We worked together collaboratively as a group so that we were all following the same road map so we could safely welcome guests back up onto the shore.”
In parts of Cook County, like Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail, summer brought a constant flow of tourists from the surrounding 300 miles or so, said Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County. Business owners saw far fewer "regulars" that visit every summer, but all of the first-time visitors made up for their absence. And tourism has stayed busy through the winter. Jurek said Lutsen has been having a banner year thanks to its ski resort.
Everyone interviewed for this story credited the community for being able to pull off a busy summer of outsiders visiting the county and not spreading the highly contagious COVID-19 virus. The business coalition has met weekly with the health systems to ensure they are still following best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as keeping up with state and county expectations.
Every week, local radio stations broadcast an update to the county that includes any community news and information about the virus. Jurek said the size of Cook County's population has made it fairly simple to communicate accurate and succinct information to its residents.
The county did have a spike in cases. Most of the county’s 121 cases (as of March 11) were reported between October and January. Many residents were concerned about widespread outbreak in the county of just more than 5,000 people, because the health systems aren’t equipped with high-level respiratory care units, and larger hospitals like those in Duluth were already near or at capacity.
“Thankfully, our case rate has decreased quite a bit in the last month and a half, and that’s really allowed us to start focusing more of our limited resources on vaccination efforts with our local clinic,” Grinager said.
As of March 11, 2,375 people (44.2%) have received at least one dose of vaccine and 1,733 people (32.2%) are fully vaccinated. Among residents age 65 and older, 90.8% have received at least one shot of vaccine.
Grinager credits much of the vaccination success in Cook County to Grand Portage Tribal Health. Grand Portage Health Service Director Jenn Sorenson said the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa was able to set its own priority list, which included band members on and off the reservation, community members and employees — plus all spouses and children of people in those priority groups.
So far, tribal health has vaccinated 300 people out of the reservation's 550 residents. Sorenson said they are also planning a vaccination event in Duluth for band members that cannot make it up to Grand Portage. She told MPR News that they had to turn down shipments of the vaccine in mid-February because "we're at a point now where we pretty much have vaccinated or will have vaccinated everyone that wants to be vaccinated."
Cook County also has a high percentage of residents who are older than 64 and have qualified for the vaccine since Jan. 19. According to U.S. Census estimates, about 30% of Cook County residents are age 65 or older. The county's only nursing home, North Shore Health Care Center, has not had a single positive case.
Grinager said social workers, care coordinators, case managers and clinic and nonprofit staff members who have already established relationships with the community's seniors helped them register for appointments.
“When we got the green light to start vaccinating the 65-and-older group, we worked really closely to leverage those trusted relationships that those community members had with our elders and made sure that everyone was able to get in,” Grinager said.
She said people were anxious to get their vaccine and the registration filled quickly. Cook County Public Health has had community vaccination clinics most Thursdays since Jan. 28.
Despite the county's successes, not everybody has had a successful year.
Sherburne said that while Grand Portage State Park saw a record number of visitors, the lodge and casino was hit hard by the Canadian border closure. Many patrons are Canadians, or tourists going to and from Isle Royale. The island didn't run taxi boats last summer, so unless visitors brought their own boat, the lodge and casino lost those guests.
He also said they erred on the side of caution at the lodge, following the CDC guidance early on that rooms should remain vacant for 24 hours between guests to let germs on surfaces and in the air die. This limited the amount of guests the lodge could accommodate in the summer. Now, there is scientific evidence that this isn't necessary, so the rooms can be turned over more frequently. The lodge also uses electrostatic sprayers to disinfect the rooms.
The Shoreline Inn in Grand Marais also turned rooms over less frequently, but manager Steph Anderson said it wasn't necessarily a voluntary move. Usually, international students on J-1 visas come for seasonal work, each taking two jobs in the service industry. With travel restrictions, no international help was able to come in 2020. Anderson was left with only a few employees to help manage guests, bookings and housekeeping. Some rooms would remain vacant for several days because no one was available to clean them.
“I could’ve turned over every room every day if I’d had those students, and we still don’t know what’s going to happen this summer," Anderson said. "Until I see the whites of their eyes, I’m not going to know.”
Humphrey, too, was left limited without the seasonal help. The Lake Superior Trading Post was one of several businesses that had to cut operating hours because there weren't enough people to help all of the customers. Some stores had to close for full days at a time due to lack of staff.
"Boy, it’s tough seeing all the crowds and then a shop closed just because they can’t hire enough people,” Humphrey said.
Restaurants were especially damaged by the pandemic. While some were able to operate around indoor gathering restrictions by utilizing service windows, outdoor seating or food truck stations, many were unable to hire enough workers to operate for full business hours. Some Grand Marais restaurants, including Grandma Ray’s and Harbor House Grille, permanently closed because of the pandemic.
Businesses involved in the local procedures expect that strict health guidelines will remain enforced through this summer.
“I think that we’re going to have one more year of this before we really feel comfortable saying, ‘OK, you can do what you did pre-COVID,’" Terrill said. "So I hope people will continue to be cautious through this coming fall, and I think we’ll be OK at that point.”
Terrill said as long as other businesses continue to stay on the same page, she hopes visitors will continue to follow rules.
"It's already going to be a busy summer, I can tell," Anderson said. "Our Memorial Day weekend is almost full and I think we’re going to stay busy until summer because people want to get out."
Joy and Company is hosting its first major event since before the pandemic hit — a community art gala: "Celebrating the Tenacious Woman." Anyone from anywhere can submit art in any form. The gallery will be displayed outdoors with COVID-19 restrictions enforced.
“It’s so healthy when you’re dealing with the stress of a situation to be able to sit and create," said Annette Block-Valdivia, manager at Joy and Co. "To just express yourself creatively is healing and we realized that and we’re happy to provide it.”
As winter turns to spring and spring turns to summer, the Cook County community keeps a hopeful outlook that soon, vaccinations will be even more widespread, borders can reopen and tourists can safely visit from near and far.
“I’m not going to say that it hasn’t come with a lot of anxiety. It’s been difficult," Jurek said. "Some of our community members really just didn’t want to see anybody here. So balancing the economics of tourism, health and education has really been worthwhile. It was a struggle, but I tell you what, it worked."