Grand Traverse County has the second-highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Michigan, but in a few weeks, it’s hosting a festival that could bring in more visitors than the county has residents -- with no way to know how many of the tourists are vaccinated.
That raises some thorny questions for health officials and event organizers in Grand Traverse and other tourist-heavy counties in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula: How can they prevent festivals from becoming super-spreader events? How can they make sure their tourism industry doesn’t inadvertently infect their local population, while visitors who seed outbreaks get to go home without facing any consequences?
Kat Paye, the executive director of the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, said that after canceling last year’s festival for the pandemic, this year, it’s back. Still, there are some big changes.
All of the events are outside. There will be no air show, no concerts, and no shoulder-to-shoulder parade crowds.
Paye said festival officials want to welcome guests, but they also want to keep the community safe.
“I believe and would wholeheartedly hope that if anyone is not feeling well and is under the weather, that they obviously stay home and don’t travel here,”
The festival is crucial to the area’s economy, said Paye. “I believe the region needs the cherry festival to a really, really high degree.”
Wendy Hirschenberger, the health officer for Grand Traverse County, said she and her staff were trying to vaccinate as many frontline workers as possible before the festival, but it could feel like a losing battle.
“It can be frustrating to think that people who are unvaccinated would come here and re-introduce COVID,” she said.
The county just recently got the spread of COVID-19 under control after a surge this spring, Hirschenberger said.
Another county with a vaccination rate well above the state average is Mackinac. Its namesake island counts a million visitors to its parks and museums most years.
Tim Hygh, the director of Mackinac Island Tourism, said the local health department has done all it can to get residents vaccinated ahead of tourism season.
They’ve brought vaccines over on boats, set up clinics at community centers, and got the word out about how to get the shots, said Kerry Ott, a spokesperson for the LMAS District Health Department, which serves Mackinac County.
Now, Hygh said, it’s up to visitors to be responsible.
“You actually have the ability, have the freedom, to be able to enjoy travel during a pandemic, and that is, in itself, incredible,” he said. “We need people to be respectful of each other.”
“We still have all our signs up encouraging distancing and hand sanitizing and everything else we’ve learned during this pandemic,” said Hygh. “We’re encouraging people to remember that.”
Hygh and other tourism officials in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula said they’re striking the best balance they can between health and the economy, now that vaccines are available to the vast majority of people.