Painful. It’s the word Billy Dougherty uses to describe how it feels to tell a family their long planned vacation is canceled — due to Minnesota’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The houseboat and recreational vehicle rental businesses are the only sector now unable to at all operate under the state’s stay at home order.
Dougherty, who with his brother Tom, operates Rainy Lake Houseboats, said the 102-year old business was ready to go May 4, when the stay at home order, which prohibited a number of outdoor-related activities, was set to expire.
“We have been very, very proactive from the get-go, before anybody else was thinking about making changes,” he said.
The business’s website describes a very detailed, new protocol for checking in, loading, checking out, and includes how guests, coming from any direction, could arrive at their business safely, avoiding risk of exposure to the local community, as well as extra sanitizing measures between parties.
Then came May 4. The state extended parts of the stay at home order, but allowed for outdoor recreational activities, including the rental of cabins, rooms, kayaks, canoes and boat motors. And while these places, too, had limitations, they were allowed to operate.
However, the state extended the prohibition on RV and houseboat rentals.
“Our business was built on social distancing,” Bill Dougherty said.
The impact of the orders on the local economy are difficult and will be long lasting, he said.
“There is lots of uncertainty. People are still coming, but the early season (loss) has taken a big toll,” he said. “It’s a new world now. We’re doing what we have to do to be safe, and hopefully we get through this season and move on. Next year will be another tough year to rebuild in a horrible economy.”
And now, the extension of the order is set to expire Monday, and Dougherty said he hopes the houseboat industry is allowed to operate.
“We were under the same circumstance a week ago Monday (May 4), and that Monday morning they said you could rent kayaks, canoes, boat motors, rooms — we are all under the same license as resorts, but they singled us out and said you can’t operate.”
He said prohibiting the rental of houseboats is “senseless. We’re the ones that don’t have the interaction with the public.”
And while he acknowledges all businesses in the community, including others in the resort industry, are suffering, he said resorts and hotels are allowed to rent cabins and rooms, which are not one quarter of a mile apart, like houseboat moorings are.
Rainy Lake Houseboats often moor at Voyageurs National Park designated houseboat sites, but those, too, are closed because of the order.
Bob DeGross, VNP superintendent, said camp and houseboat sites are distant from one another.
“The manner in which Voyageurs National Park overnight tent camping and houseboat mooring sites are laid out allows for social distancing as defined by the CDC and state guidelines,” he said.”The park is working on its plan for increasing access like this and is developing operational guidelines with that in mind.”
The National Park Service position is that parks should evaluate operating status in accordance with federal, state, and local public health guidance. Current state guidance is that all private and public campgrounds and dispersed camping sites must remain closed to recreational camping, he said. The closures have been implemented to encourage people to stay close to home to limit the spread of COVID-19, reduce the strain during a time when many services are limited, and to alleviate the potential pressures that could be placed upon small rural communities that are often adjacent to public lands.
However, he said, as the state continues its efforts to respond to COVID-19, if it determines that recreational camping and overnight recreational rentals can safely resume, VNP would work to follow suit and allow for these activities.
The trend in houseboat trips has changed, leading to a more isolated vacations for families, while years ago most trips were booked by anglers seeking a great fishing experience, Dougherty said. “They don’t have much impact on community, and unfortunately not as much economic impact the way we will have to do business now.”
Rainy Lake Houseboats is ready for business, when it and the other houseboat businesses will be allowed.
Meanwhile, Dougherty said the state order is causing harm from which communities may not be able to recover.
“It’s quite painful, telling people not to come to International Falls, to drive around it,” he said. “I just drove downtown main street. How sick is that?”
He urged local and state leaders to give people “continuity” in their messages about businesses; now, he said people are hearing mixed messages about what businesses are safe to operate and how they should operate.
“We now have three cases (of the virus), and no tourists,” he said.
He said this is the first time in the country where the government tells “you who works, who can’t, who visits, who will be destroyed. Who will not. Lots out there are already destroyed. Who will be new investors? You’d be a lunatic to do it now.”
He pointed to the local Menards store, which allowed to be open, but is not requiring staff or customers to wear face masks, like they are at other Menards stores. And he said local folks are being forced to go out of town to Bemidji and Grand Rapids to buy clothing and other needs, not now offered locally.
“This is a struggle for the whole community,” he said. “Job loss, you name it, it’s not good.”
He said Rainy Lake Houseboats has been able to keep its employees working; readying the houseboat business for the season means a lot of work in a short time. However, he said more are hired once the business opens, and that has not yet happened.
Dougherty said he’s disappointed something new this year has now put on hold: A special discount for local people. “It may still happen later,” he said. “It depends.”
He offered some advice to the local business and tourism community:
“Be strong and thoughtful. On our end, we were doing that. The tourists are going to come, and when the bridge (to and from Canada) opens it will be huge. Tourism has been the second largest industry since, literally, 1918. You can’t just shut the switch off.”