Even amid pandemic, winter tourism vital to local economy

It may have taken awhile, but a couple of chilly evenings and early-mornings this week were a not so subtle reminder that we’re in the heart of winter here in the Ely area.
The sights and sounds of fish houses, snowmobiles and dog teams on local lakes and trails are another sure sign, along with a report that at least one local lodging establishment was busy enough to put out a “no vacancy” sign last weekend.
In a typical year, a three-day holiday weekend, not to mention the trout opener, would be signal enough to expect hordes of visitors to enjoy what Ely has to offer, and to offer a much needed jolt to an otherwise stagnant economic time.
Make no mistake about it, dog teams, snowmobiles and ice fishing are a much-needed pick-me-up for local businesses in the dead of an Ely winter.
But nothing’s typical about these times because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s only now that some businesses are reemerging and reopening, at limited capacity, after a several week shutdown ordered by Gov. Tim Walz.
On top of that the virus and its associated restrictions have already done a number on a slew of winter events.
The Fun Run, which involves as many as 1,000 snowmobilers, is cancelled for 2021 because the limits on indoor gatherings make it impossible for the event-culminating wrap up party and prize giveway to be held at Fortune Bay.
Meanwhile, the WolfTrack Classic will go on as scheduled next month, but without throngs of spectators to cheer on the mushers, handlers and dog teams at the softball complex or, astonishingly enough, anywhere along the dozens of miles of trail.
That’s a head scratcher, but the state has found a way to muzzle an outdoors event that seems perfect for social distancing.
And right in town, the Ely Winter Festival will be a scaled-back event this year, with indoor events like the Beardfest cancelled and the snow sculpture symposium dramatically scaled back.
Those are all significant hits to an already reeling business community.
The impacts spread far beyond those directly affected and have a domino effect.
Fewer people in town means fewer folks in those lodging establishments, the restaurants, bars and anywhere else they may stop during their stay in Ely. And that means fewer dollars for those business owners, those employees, and fewer dollars spent by those businesses for services and products and anything and everything in between.
And the hit comes at the worst possible time.
Yet all is not lost and if the summer of 2020 showed us anything, many people will still come to Ely even if signature events are cancelled.
There’s no doubt that the area had a busy summer, despite the pandemic, despite the restrictions and despite the cancellation of the Blueberry/Art and Harvest Moon festivals, the Ely Marathon, and any of a number of other events and activities.
That provides a glimmer of hope that all is not lost this winter, and the no vacancy sign last weekend may be Exhibit A.
Some events may be cancelled and other may not look like they usually do, but Ely still has much to offer this winter.
We’re encouraged by reports that anglers are drilling holes in area lakes, and the sights of snowmobile trailers are becoming more common outside local motels. Ely remains a haven for dogsled vacations or those wanting to snowshoe or cross country ski in relative tranquility.
The Ely Arena is alive again with youth hockey and last Saturday brought visitors to town for both high school basketball and hockey games on the school campus, now that the Minnesota State High School League has started its winter sports season.
Those scaled-back events still have something to offer as well.
There may not be as many snow sculptures to view at Whiteside Park, but it will be well worth a visit to stop down, get out of the car and look at this year’s rendition of art. Those visitors can walk around downtown as they would normally do, and take in the ArtWalk as well.
We’d bet that a resourceful mushing fan could even find a place somewhere along the trail and take in a bit of the WolfTrack.
Safety and a visit to Ely are not an either-or proposition, and the outdoors offer innumerable opportunities to enjoy some winter recreation in a safe environment while providing an economic lifeline to the community.
And those prospects should only improve over the next few weeks, with Covid numbers going down and vaccinations going up.
Let’s hope more “no vacancy” signs are in Ely’s future.