Monday is Memorial Day — marking the unofficial beginning of summer just as many Americans, tiring of quarantine and lockdown, are emerging from their homes in earnest. Throughout the region, temperatures are expected to be in the high 60s to mid-70s.
So what happens next?
The most likely result, state and local officials say, is a surge in traffic to parks and open spaces. Despite cratering travel statistics at Grand Forks hotels, there are already significant boosts in trail traffic on Grand Forks’ Greenway, marking a trend that’s expected to continue through the weekend.
"What we're seeing across every data source is that people are going to be traveling closer to home,” said Sarah Otte Coleman, the state tourism and marketing director. So while she says travelers are reluctant to fly — for obvious pandemic-related reasons — they’re also unlikely to hop in the car and drive across the country. That leaves a smaller radius around communities likely to see a boost in interest just as restaurants and other businesses attempt to regain their footing.
Grand Forks Ski and Bike shop is right at the center of the phenomenon, though co-owner Pat White points out that the business has kept up a steady flow of customers during the pandemic.
“Bicycling is still one of the things (people) can do to go out that's mentally, physically rewarding — you can practice social distancing with it, and overall, people are rediscovering cycling,” White said. He said he saw a jump in customer traffic far earlier this year than normal. “This would be back just as the pandemic hit, early in March, and it hasn't subsided."
What this means for public health is unclear. While parks often have the room to allow users to stay distanced from one another, the virus itself is still very much present in North Dakota. More than 2,200 cases have been detected since the start of the pandemic, roughly half of them since May 1. Several hundred have been detected in Grand Forks County.
The Centers for Disease Control still stresses that Americans should take care when they visit open spaces, though, visiting parks that are close to home and maintaining social distance. Americans are still advised against visiting parks with too many people, using playground equipment or playing organized sports — especially if they’re ill or have had recent contact with the virus. The risk of the virus is still very real, with deaths mounting by the day.
But the CDC’s website also points out that physical activity is “one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy,” and Greater Grand Forks residents don’t appear to have needed any encouragement.
Kim Greendahl, Grand Forks’ Greenway specialist, said visits to the park have surged significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, with families often taking advantage of loosened school and work schedules. And, she points out, trails at the Greenway are far wider than the six feet recommended for social distancing.
Jim Grijalva, of Ground UP Adventures, the operator behind the kayak launch usually operating downtown, said his group is working on a solution that could have paddlers back out on the river soon. The biggest holdup for now is that slippery spring riverbanks are creating a logistical issue for the boats at the business, located near the Sorlie Bridge in Grand Forks.
“We've developed some protocols for trying to make sure we have social distancing and cleaning the equipment to make sure it's safe for guests to use,” he said. “We do think that, just like we see people out on the trails, we're expecting there's going to be a lot more interest in people getting out on the river as an additional activity.”
But for all the interest in summertime activity, this travel season will look markedly different. Otte Coleman lists off multi-million-dollar losses in tourist spending in major cities all around North Dakota, with canceled festivals and conventions and the like taking their toll on local economies. Greendahl adds that, despite the tick upwards in traffic, the Greenway has seen a slew of events canceled.
Julie Rygg, who heads Grand Forks’ local tourism bureau, said that hotel occupancy rates are low, but not as low as she’d feared — likely a side effect of health care and other essential workers finding a place to quarantine during the crisis. And she said she’s optimistic about the way forward.
"I've been in a few businesses myself, and I'm highly impressed with what they're doing,” Rygg said. “It's a slow process. (But) people are anxious to get out and experience the community.”