Door County amid COVID-19

The Ellison Bluff State Natural Area near Ellison Bay is a big draw for those looking to take in one of the many dramatic views of Door County. Tourism officials say visitor spending is down about 20% in the county, much less than what was anticipated because of COVID-19.

EGG HARBOR — Campgrounds have been near capacity and it’s not uncommon for hotels here to be booked.

Restaurants, brewpubs and wineries are trying to survive with retrofitted outdoor venues, while biking, kayaking and hiking have never been more popular.

Fish boils are still a thing, along with all things cherry, shipwrecks, jaunts to Washington Island and, at this time of the year, leisurely drives and boat tours to take in the fall colors, expected to be at peak in the next few weeks.

Door County amid COVID-19

Master boiler Dan Peterson adds a scoop of salt to a pot of red potatoes as he prepares for an evening fish boil at Viking Grill in Ellison Bay. Peterson, who has owned the business since 1984, said he has had weeks this season that have surpassed those in 2019. The fish boil has been a mainstay at Viking Grill since 1961. 

Tourism on the Door County Peninsula is down about 20%, a figure many communities would envy. But the success here amid rising cases of COVID-19 is also about what the county doesn’t have. And we’re not talking about a lack of a Culver’s or Kwik Trip once you get past Sturgeon Bay.

This finger of land that separates Lake Michigan from the bay of Green Bay doesn’t rely on youth baseball, hockey, soccer and lacrosse tournaments that bring in families from around the Midwest. Nor does it draw conferences and conventions that fill acres of event space, thousands of hotel rooms and multi-story parking garages. There are beaches instead of waterparks, locally owned boutiques and no outlet malls.

Door County amid COVID-19

Lines are common at Not Licked Frozen Custard in Fish Creek. The business, located near Peninsula State Park, has installed several propane heaters to help keep customers comfortable on cool fall days.

Catering to individuals and families has, for years, been tourism’s status quo here.

“We’re still doing them one by one and two by two just like we always have,” said Jack Moneypenny, CEO and president of Destination Door County. “For us that was one of our saving graces. We are holding our own and doing better than we thought we would be doing.”

Door County is one of the key destinations in Wisconsin’s $22.2 billion tourism industry. In 2019, tourism spending statewide rose just over 3% when compared to 2018, according to data commissioned by the state Department of Tourism. In Door County, spending increased 2.5% to $480 million, which ranked it ninth in spending overall out of the state’s 72 counties, just ahead of Racine County ($478 million) and just behind Winnebago County ($509 million). Milwaukee County ($3.8 billion) topped the list, followed by Dane County ($2.3 billion), Waukesha County ($1.5 billion) and Sauk County ($1.4 billion), home to many of the attractions in the Wisconsin Dells area.

Door County amid COVID-19

An “open” sign greets visitors at Greens N Grains in Egg Harbor. Many Door County merchants say that if they can make it through the fall, they will survive for another season.

But the coronavirus pandemic has been merciless and has decimated tourism. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that tourism nationally is down 45% this year, and since March the industry has lost a staggering $396 billion. Extrapolated, it could mean nearly $10 billion in tourism losses in Wisconsin.

Festivals, concerts, sporting events, fairs and scores of other events have been canceled. Hotels have laid off thousands of people, and dining and shopping, major tourism activities, have been limited.

But for business owners in Door County, surviving through this month likely means they’ll be able to return next season. The county is open during the winter, but the vast majority of its business is a six-month window that begins in May.

Door County amid COVID-19

The outdoor seating area at The Fireside in Egg Harbor was a saving grace for the restaurant since owner Lauren Schar closed the dining room.

All about survival

At The Fireside, an Egg Harbor restaurant open year-round and known for its jambalaya, bourbon sriracha salmon and baby back ribs with homemade cherry barbecue sauce, the dining room has been closed since March. Instead, owner Lauren Schar has offered up take-out service and outdoor seating. Same goes for her other two businesses housed in the 13,000-square-foot space, The Pub and Big Easy Bagel and Beignet.

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She estimates her businesses are down about 30%. She didn’t want to put her employees and customers in situations that could compromise their health.

“It’s tough, but we’re blessed. We’re very, very busy, thank God,” Schar said as she sat at one of her outdoor tables along Highway 42 in the village’s downtown. “It’s about safety. We’ve just been running with a nonprofit mentality, one foot in front of the other, be here and don’t lose so much money that we can’t be here next year. It’s just a brand new business concept.”

Door County amid COVID-19

Terry Chier, owner of Door County Sunglass Company in Egg Harbor, said it was impossible to make up for six weeks of lost sales when his business was closed for much of April and May. But he met his adjusted sales projections for the rest of the summer.

A few doors down, at the Door County Sunglass Company, Terry Chier’s business is housed in a quaint historic building that decades ago was home to a post office and more recently a restaurant. The brightly painted building across the street from Main Street Market, the village’s bustling grocery store, is jammed with brand-name sunglasses and accessories.

Chier closed his business for six weeks in the spring due to COVID-19 and readjusted his goals for the year before reopening just prior to Memorial Day weekend.

“It was slow for about 10 days (after the reopening) and then people started to figure out how they were going to handle the pandemic and the tourists started showing up,” Chier said. “We met the amended goals, so the summer was unique in that regard.”

Chier reduced the number of employees from six to four and said his business is down about 25% compared to last year. But during some periods of the year he surpassed his sales for the same period in 2019.

“But what was hard was to make up for six weeks of lost income,” said Chier, who opened his business in 2014.

Door County amid COVID-19

Finding a room or a campsite in Door County, especially on a weekend, was still a challenge this season despite COVID-19. The Beachfront Inn is a popular spot to stay in Bailey’s Harbor.

Collective comfort

Door County has continued to see its COVID cases rise. In late September, Public Health Door County announced that there was “significant uncontrolled spread” and that the number of cases was exceeding the ability of testing and case investigation and straining contact tracing efforts. Debates about masks are short with virtually all businesses mandating masks and an overall general compliance by visitors, Moneypenny said.

That compliance has helped create an atmosphere of collective comfort with masks, whether it be a visit to the beach, orchard, pumping gas or even while standing in line at Not Licked Frozen Custard in Fish Creek, where more than a dozen propane patio heaters help fend off the fall chill. At Bailey’s Harbor Fish Company, customers are no longer allowed inside the shop, and only cash is accepted.

Door County amid COVID-19

This sign is near Sherwood Point in Door County. 

Further up the peninsula, the Viking Grill is still doing its fish boil but because of staffing issues no longer has seating in a building adjacent to where Dan Peterson stokes the fire before adding red potatoes and whitefish to a kettle of boiling water. Customers can eat inside the main restaurant, outside or get their order to go.

“It’s difficult,” Peterson said. “It’s a lot different than last year.”

Door County amid COVID-19

Angela Luberger, a jeweler who co-owns Plum Bottom Gallery in Egg Harbor, said sales are down this year but have not decreased as much as she and her husband, porcelain artist Chad Luberger, had expected.

Back in Egg Harbor, Angela and Chad Luberger’s Plum Bottom Gallery had been located in a rural area south of the village since 2007, but in 2019 the couple opened a second location in Egg Harbor to take advantage of the foot traffic. Chad is a porcelain artist, Angela creates jewelry, and the couple also sell the works of 100 artists from around the country in a variety of mediums. Masks are essential for both customers and employees, and Angela said she has seen more families during the week, when compared to past fall seasons. Many are buying art as a way to change up interiors after months of being stuck at home.

“People are still here. They’re coming for the colors and they’re still coming to Door County. We’re only a gas tank away,” Angela Luberger said. “We were expecting and preparing to be down 50 percent and we’re not down as far as we thought. We’re going to make it.”