ST. PAUL -- As of Monday, May 18, you can again go camping in Minnesota. But like so many other things in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a difficult twist to it.
One sentence in executive order 20-56 from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz -- the one that allows malls to open, but keeps bars and restaurants closed until June 1 -- made it clear that what most think of as “camping” is still not happening.
“Both private- and public-developed campgrounds remain closed to recreational camping.” it reads in Paragraph 8, Section L.
But on Monday, “dispersed camping” opened in Minnesota state forests, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park, so those most dedicated to sleeping under the stars have an option.
“If you are a hearty wilderness camper, you are absolutely welcome to go out into a state forest, one mile away from a developed campground, and do dispersed camping,” said Kim Pleticha, a spokesperson from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. As she noted, this is wilderness camping at its most basic. No campsites, you bury your own human waste, you dig your own fire ring, etc.
“It’s you and your backpack,” Pleticha said. “There are some lovely places where you can do this, but there are no amenities.”
Those looking for amenities, and a place to park their RV for Memorial Day weekend, are more than likely out of luck in Minnesota, as the new executive order keeps state park campgrounds and private campgrounds closed until June 1 at the earliest. This is an increasing problem and a source of frustration for the families that own campgrounds in the state, especially with resorts, hotels and houseboats open for people to stay overnight.
“Somebody bringing their RV into a site, with their own bathroom and their own hookups, it’s essentially just a cabin on wheels, and yet they’re not being treated the same,” said Ben Wogsland of Hospitality Minnesota, the trade organization which represents restaurants, hotels and campgrounds in the state. “Memorial Day weekend, for these folks, is huge. I was told by one operator that it might be a quarter to a third of their revenue for the entire year. That’s a really big deal.”
Indeed, less than a week before the first of three holiday weekends that are vital to campground business, things are way too quiet at Crow Wing Lake Campground, a dozen miles south of Brainerd. Owner Phil Trusty said that they have been turning away potential customers since May 1, with many of them instead going to Wisconsin or other neighboring states where campgrounds will be open, albeit with restrictions on public gathering places like playgrounds, shower rooms and pools.
“We have three holidays, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. If we lose Memorial Day, you might as well say we’ve been closed for four months,” Trusty said. “If we get to the Fourth of July it will be six months. After that the bank is going to have to be real nice to me or we’ll have to do something different.”
Across the state line to the east, west and south, private campgrounds are open, although those public spaces remain closed. Alan Spencer lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., and his family owns a campground there, another near Lake Okoboji in Iowa and a third in Wisconsin Dells. They have started to see some spillover business coming from Minnesota as the holiday weekend approaches. He said that the Sioux Falls KOA is not a “destination campground” and is usually a one-night stopover, but that is changing.
“We’ve seen an uptick in people coming here to see friends. I think people are just itching to get out of the house so we’re seeing an uptick of more localized traffic than we might otherwise see,” said Spencer. “Normally we see people traveling to the Black Hills that stay with us for one night, and now we’re seeing more two-night stays where people will just hang out at the campground with their families.”
He noted that they are sanitizing things every hour, and are discussing ways to safely re-open the pools sometime in the coming months, perhaps by requiring swimmers to bring their own chairs, and requiring reservations, so pool use is limited to four or five families at a time. Spencer even put in a plug for his colleagues in Minnesota, saying they should have the same ability to open as campgrounds like his in neighboring states.
“Camping is, in the most literal sense, social distancing. If everyone is on their own lot and in their own camper, they’re maintaining a good distance. It’s potentially safer than staying in a hotel,” Spencer said. “You can keep your own stuff clean and if you’re self-contained you don’t even need to use the bathhouse. I wholeheartedly think that campgrounds should be open for overnight use. People want to get out, and they need to get out. Sitting home all day is not good for mental health.”
Trusty’s campground has 100 sites, and 40 of them are held by seasonal campers who leave an RV there year-round and can still use the facility under the terms of the executive order. But the other 60 sites are empty, and among campground owners, the frustration with Walz is growing, as the closures keep getting extended a few weeks at a time. Hospitality Minnesota has been working with the governor’s office and the Department of Employment and Economic Development in an effort to get campgrounds open for the holiday weekend, thus far with no movement.
“I was very disappointed that (Walz) didn’t think we could open our campgrounds safely, for us, for our family and for the customers,” Trusty said. “This is our livelihood, and he’s been ‘two-weeking’ us to death.”