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Mackinac Island looks to reopen ‘right’ way with season set to truly begin

By Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — At The Loon Feather gift shop, the shelves have been rearranged to make more space. Plexiglas surrounds the relocated checkout stand. Hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves are accessible to shoppers.

Summer Sahm, restaurant manager at Horn's Bar, thinks the island will be understaffed for holiday crowds this summer.

A mask-wearing Mary McCourt Dufina has been ready for customers since she opened the Main Street shop for the season in late May, a month later than usual. So far, the flow of tourists has been more of a trickle than a stream. But with most of the island’s hotels now open and Fort Mackinac and other historic sites following suit this weekend, Dufina is eager for the season to truly begin.

So is Mackinac Island.

The island officially kicks off the summer season Friday, nearly a month after the governor allowed the opening of restaurants, bars and other businesses in the Upper Peninsula and the Traverse City region. Instead of welcoming throngs of tourists Memorial Day weekend, the island remained closed, opting for a slow, measured reopening.

“It was a practical decision,” said Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism. “When you close your business down for six months, it’s like closing a cabin down for six months. It takes a while to get back open. It takes even longer when you’re introducing new health and safety protocols.”           

Signage is among the many safety measures Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry has implemented this summer.

Concerned about protecting visitors, island residents and workers against COVID-19, business, health and government officials formed the Mackinac Island Public Health Task Force,  which has recommended safety guidelines and offers resources for the community. About 500 residents live on the island year-round. Seasonal workers typically number about 5,000, but their return and hiring slowed as the statewide shutdown delayed construction and renovation.

Returning visitors will notice changes. Sandwich board sidewalk signs remind tourists to wear a face mask, stay 6 feet apart, and, as they like to say on this horse-friendly island, “wash your hooves.” Ten hand sanitizing stations are located downtown. Many stores, restaurants, bars and hotels have additional signage and are limiting the number of customers inside.

“It’s going to look a little different, but we hope it doesn’t feel different,” Hygh said. “ We hope it’s just a one-year deal.”

About 1 million people visit Mackinac Island each year, mostly in the summer months.  Looking to alleviate traffic on shop-lined Main Street, island employees are being asked to park their bikes in designated areas. Visitors will be encouraged to rent bikes and explore the rest of the island.

Looking to encourage tourists to explore the island and practice social distancing, Mission Point Resort partnered with Detroit Bikes to creates its own line of hotel bikes.

Things are different

Island-goers will notice changes before they arrive on Mackinac, beginning at the docks in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.

Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, one of two transit companies serving the island, posted sidewalk signs reminding visitors to practice social distancing, wear masks and sanitize their hands. The company changed boarding and deboarding procedures, seating arrangements,  and is sanitizing each vessel with hand-held fog machines after each one-way trip.

“We haven’t taken our focus off the safety measures of operating a vessel and the safety of passengers aboard. What is added is protective equipment and how we handle our guests and what we ask of our guests,” said Chris Shepler, president and a third-generation member of the family-owned business.

Additionally, Shepler’s is sanitizing outdoor facilities, including the shuttle trams to off-site parking areas, tram stops, and luggage holding areas.

Hand sanitizer can be found all over the island.

 “As our mayor of Mackinac Island has repeatedly stated … we only get one chance to open,” Shepler said. “If we open and we don’t do it right, then we’ll be done.  Knock on wood everything is going good right now. It’s everyone’s job on the whole island and the business community to make sure all protocols are followed as closely as possible.”

On the island, Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, which offers tours as well as taxi and freight services, modified its fleet of horse-drawn carriages. In a typical season, the company manages 350 horses and up to 100 different vehicles.

The company, which has been operating on the island since 1867, has placed clear plastic dividers between rows and limits one party, up to four people traveling together, in each row. The front seat is also left empty to safely distance the driver from passengers. Passengers must wear masks.

“We’ve been at this quite a while. We survived the first pandemic,” said Brad Chambers, a fifth-generation member of the family-owned business, referring to the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918. “Here we are again 100 years later and we’re modifying again.”

A Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry worker spray sanitizes the lower level of a boat after its arrival at Mackinac Island.

Hotels making changes

Most of the island’s hotels opened this past weekend, but Mackinac’s two largest hotels, the Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort, open Sunday and June 25, respectively.

All of the Grand Hotel’s 397 rooms will be open, but significant changes have been made across the property. The service desk relocated to give guests more space.  An acrylic partition has been installed at the front desk. Hand sanitizing stations are placed throughout the hotel.

Dining tables have been reconfigured to provide social distancing. Menus will be disposable, and a QR code is available for a contactless option. The iconic front porch rocking chairs will be spread out and staggered.

“Although some things will look different for returning guests, the traditions of the Grand Hotel will remain the same,” said Ken Hayward, senior vice president and managing director of the hotel.

Mission Point Resort spent $2 million to renovate and expand its outdoor pavilion, which will also be home to a lemonade stand opening this summer.

On the other side of the island, Mission Point Resort is following similar, extensive safety guidelines, adhering to the Safe Stay standards from the American Hotel and Lodging Association. All 241 rooms will be available to guests. Guests will check in by texting to pick up their keys and check out remotely. The resort has removed cups, guest directories and other paper materials from rooms.

A $2 million renovation of its promenade deck and new pavilion, which overlooks the Straits of Mackinac, previously slated for large events will not provide more space for outdoor activities and social distancing.

“We’re taking the lemons from the lost events and making lemonade,” said Liz Ware, vice president of the family-owned resort. “We’re doing some really fun things with our abundant outdoor spaces. We’ve had to pivot.”

Mission Point has partnered with Detroit Bikes to offer a fleet of bikes to encourage guests to get out and explore the island, most of which is state park land. In another effort to promote social distancing, the resort is launching the Mission Point Picnic Society, encouraging guests to pick up picnic supplies at its restaurants and enjoy its great waterfront lawn.

Mary McCourt Dufina, owner of The Loon Feather and other Mackinac Island businesses, took all the necessary precautions before opening the gift shop last month.

More openings

As Mackinac Island opens for tourism, other popular destinations in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are in various stages of reopening.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, near Traverse City, will open its visitors center and other previously closed facilities Tuesday. However, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and a few museums will remain closed for now. The Dune Climb, hiking trails, beaches and backcountry areas are open.

Throughout the park, which draws about 1.5 million visitors each year, there are signs reminding people how to stay safe.

The Manitou Island Transit, which ferries day hikers and backpackers from Leland to the Manitou Islands, part of the national park, will not be running this summer. High water levels have swamped the dock at South Manitou, and dredging is needed around the dock on North Manitou. However, the islands will open Tuesday and will be accessible to private boaters.

Signage is among the many safety measures Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry has implemented this summer.

In the Upper Peninsula, the trails and recreational areas of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores are open, but the visitor centers and the Au Sable Lighthouse remain closed. The park, which attracted about 850,000 people last year, is planning outdoor programming and has posted boards with maps and other information outside visitor centers. Park staff is available to answer questions by phone during business hours. Pictured Rock Cruises resumed service this week.

“We want everyone to act responsibly when they visit,” said Susan Reece, chief of interpretation and education at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  “Make plans before you come up, know what is open and know what you can do. Keep social distance. We have no hand sanitizer in the park. People should bring their own at this time.”

All public facilities at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior remain closed. There is no visitor ferry service or lodging available this year. Overnight anchoring of boats in Lake Superior is allowed.

View of Mackinac Island prior to 2020.

'It’s all very strange' 

On Mackinac Island, Horn’s Gaslight Bar and Restaurant opened the first Friday in June, six weeks later than usual.

Owned and operated by the same family since 1933, Horn’s is using every other booth to seat diners and has removed some tables to create more space. Capacity is limited to 63 customers, instead of the usual 150. During busy times, Horn’s takes cellphone numbers and calls customers when their table is ready. Masks are required.

“Many people are unaware of what to do,” said Patti Ann Moskwa, the bar’s owner. “We’re educating the public. You have to be patient with guests. We’re all trying to help people do the right thing. It’s all very strange.”

Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, will visit the island as it opens this weekend, the first of several stops across the state, to remind travelers to practice safety measures.

“My intention is to model safe travel behavior,” he said. “I’m concerned about some of the things I’m seeing. Too few people are wearing masks indoors and not paying attention to safety protocols. We need to encourage people to do that."

Those protocols are especially important in heavily visited destinations, such as Mackinac Island, which has had only two COVID-19 cases; both patients recovered.

“If we don’t do these things, we’ll be locked out again.  We don’t want to step backwards. We can’t afford to have another health, economic and psychological crisis. We’re not meant to be sequestered. Travel is good for the soul.”