As the pandemic stretches to nearly nine months of lockdowns and quarantines, there is perhaps no greater symbol of Grand Forks’ ailing hospitality sector than the Alerus Center — the heart of a hotel and restaurant economy that’s practically stopped beating this year, tallying nearly $4 million in lost revenues.
Last weekend, though, things were a little different. The Pride of Dakota shopping showcase rolled through the Alerus Center. It boasted three days of 125 vendors — from books to art to jewelry to clothes to sporting goods — all in the midst of a global pandemic.
But the event had a grim backdrop. As of Thursday afternoon, Grand Forks County’s total positive cases — since the beginning of the pandemic — nearly equaled 9% of its population, and appeared set to exceed 10% in coming days. Hospital capacities around North Dakota are growing strained. Local school leaders are expected to meet soon to decide whether to send students home. That’s despite their own long list of careful precautions to keep the virus at bay.
Amid all this, the Alerus Center hosted more than 3,000 guest entries, spread across three days, for a commercial event — unlike early voting or COVID testing. And smaller events, like meetings or weddings, are expected to continue.
This week, Mayor Brandon Bochenski issued an executive order that slashes capacity limits for bars and restaurants, among other restrictions, and put in place a review process for special events with more than 500 people present — similar to review policies that have been in practice at the Alerus Center.
As case counts continue to rise, scrutiny on those events and review processes is expected to go up with it.
"I'm not on the Alerus Commission, and I've not been in on those conversations, so I'm not going to second guess anything there,” City Council member Bret Weber said. “Clearly we want to keep as much of the economy open as we can, but we have to do so in a way that stops people from dying."
This is one of the central questions of Grand Forks’ handling of the virus. The Alerus Center provides a spark of economic activity for the community as well as a meager trickle of income to cover its costs. But in October, City Administrator Todd Feland predicted that the city could still spend $1.4 million of the event center’s cash reserves to cover its financial losses through the end of the year.
For now, city and Alerus Center leaders say the events center is staying open for commercial events — and insist that things are safe.
“We are minimizing the number of events. We’re minimizing the numbers at these specific events, too,” City Administrator Todd Feland said this week. “So, you know, things have gotten smaller and smaller and less and less. But I still think there’s a need to keep that facility open.”
Anna Rosburg, the facility’s general manager, provides a long list of safety features and procedures at the Alerus, from the strength of the air circulation to the spacious interior to mask requirements. She points out that, at Pride of Dakota, attendance was never above 240 on the floor at a given time, which made for plenty of room to socially distance. And Herald coverage of the event reported that high-traffic areas would be well-cleaned with plenty of hand sanitizer available.
“Our priority right now is to make sure that when we're hosting events, that we're mitigating risk in any way that we possibly can, that we're working through those plans and that we're executing events that are as safe as they can be,” Rosburg said.
But despite precautions, holding big public events still carries a risk. Debbie Swanson, director of Grand Forks Public Health, referred the Herald to an online calculator — built with input from Georgia Tech and Stanford experts — that shows how likely it is that an event in the U.S. will host someone with coronavirus. The tool makes a few assumptions, like a much greater rate of infection than actually reported with testing.
But in Grand Forks County, the calculator estimates that a gathering of 25 people is at least 98% certain to include someone with COVID. For gatherings of 50 people and larger, it predicts almost total certainty that an attendee has the virus.
The Alerus Center is well aware of the risks. A disclaimer on its site, listed in one case alongside a Dec. 4 dinner event, notes that “COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease that can lead to severe illness and death. … By entering the venue, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, and Venue disclaims any and all liability related thereto.”
Grand Forks Public Health’s Ana Ebbert, an environmental health specialist, said Alerus Center officials have been in regular contact through the summer, asking how to keep visitors safer — and notably doing so before the Pride of Dakota.
“It helps because the Alerus Center is really large, and they're able to spread people out and they have a really good air exchange,” Ebbert said. “They're doing really well."
'Depression' times in tourism
The Alerus Center’s continued operation comes during extraordinarily desperate times in the hospitality industry. When she spoke to the Herald in October, local convention and visitors bureau chief Julie Rygg did not mince words.
“What we're seeing is that in the tourism and hospitality industry as a whole, we're — the word that's been used over and over again is — in a depression,” Rygg said.
From March through August, 2020 occupancy rates were consistently far lower than a year prior, bottoming out in April at 23.1% but staying below 50% through July. They’ve only managed to match last year as of September, at 53.6%.
"This is definitely a marathon,” Rygg said. ”It's not the sprint we thought it was at the beginning."
Speaking this week, Rosburg shared numbers that suggest the difficult trend has continued. In 2020, 144 events have been canceled, as well as eight in 2021. Last month, Rosburg said local leaders have laid out a roughly three-year plan for the Alerus Center to recover, which she said essentially comes down to “controlling everything we can control” on costs and revenues. But she’s also crossing her fingers that touring resumes in the second half of 2021.
And for now, the future of the center appears to be that it will stay open — although it’s not expected to host large commercial events again for some time, instead catering to smaller events like meetings or weddings and at least one funeral.
In the meantime, City Council President Dana Sande referred questions on the event center’s immediate future to the Alerus Center Commission, the citizen body that oversees the facility for City Hall. Hal Gershman, a member of the Alerus Center Commission, and Rygg, the commission’s convention and visitor’s bureau representative, referred questions this week back to Rosburg.
“If I had one message for guests and the community, it’s that the Alerus Center and our team, throughout the pandemic, have utilized the (safety) resources that we have, both through corporate and both through public health and the North Dakota smart restart guidelines,” she said. “We take it extremely seriously. This is our top one, two, three, four, 10 priorities right now."