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Leelanau County sees influx of seasonal residents seeking shelter from COVID-19

Noelle Riley
Interlochen Public Radio
Jackie Bojarski rings up groceries in Suttons Bay at Hansen Foods. The grocery store recently put up plexiglass to help protect workers from COVID-19.

People are flooding into Leelanau County since COVID-19 hit Michigan last month, according to several local business owners.

Health departments in northern Michigan have asked those visiting to self-quarantine, and essential workers in the county are concerned about the increased foot traffic.

Fleeing danger downstate

Leland Mercantile is busier than usual for this time of year, according to employee Sarah Allis.

Credit Noelle Riley / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Sarah Allis works at Leland Mercantile in Leland. She's seen an influx of people up north.

“I’m just a little concerned with people coming up from really populated areas,” she says. “A lot of summer people that usually wouldn’t come up until after Easter or May and they’re coming up early to open their summer homes.”

Although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked Michigan residents to stay home, her executive order doesn't specifically say people can’t go to their second homes up north.

Local health departments have asked anyone traveling to the region to self-quarantine for 14 days. Allis hopes people follow those recommendations.

“We’re just doing the best we can. We’re not turning people away. I mean it’s good for our business. We’re doing a lot of curbside pickup,” she says.

Many grocers prefer curbside pickup over people coming into their stores right now. That includes Connie Frost, owner of Hansen Foods in Suttons Bay.

Visitors aren't trying to hide why they came up north, she says.

“Most of them are very verbal about letting us know they feel safer here, just by the numbers,” says Frost.

Increased risk to residents

The visitors might feel safer, but they bring an increased risk for year-round residents, according to health officials.

Michelle Klein is the Director of Personal Health at the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.

She’s worried the positive cases of coronavirus could spike in the region if people aren’t more cautious.

“As more and more people are coming up to this area, our health care system doesn’t have the capability to manage large, large, large numbers of people,” says Klein. “And so there is a fear that if too many people come up to the area, especially if they come up and develop symptoms and then become ill, then our health care system up here may become overwhelmed.”

Credit Noelle Riley / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Workers at Deeps Corner store in Northport have also seen an increase in foot traffic up north.

Cottage owners aren't asking

IPR reached out to one downstate health department — Washtenaw County — to see whether they’re telling residents not to travel up north.

It’s the sixth most populous county in the state — home to the city of Ann Arbor.

The Washtenaw County Health Department has been asked a lot of questions about COVID-19, according to Communications and Health Promotions Administrator Susan Ringler-Cerniglia.

However, she says nobody's called to ask whether they should go to their 'up north' cottage, so her agency hasn't given any specific guidance on it.

A fragile community

As of Monday evening, only three Leelanau County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, accoding to the health department.

Rebecca Roman is worried. She works at Deeps Cornerstore in Northport, and says their community is fragile.

“We’re so small that if one person gets sick in this area, then almost the whole town is going to get sick,” says Roman.