Coronavirus takes toll on Brainerd lakes area resorts with layoffs, losses

Known as the vacation destination of Minnesota, the Crow Wing County region boasts several well-known and longtime resorts such as Grand View Lodge in Nisswa facing an unprecedented challenge: COVID-19.

Guests walk down the iconic stairway at Grand View Lodge Wednesday, March 18, as the resort braces for a season hampered by the Coronavirus. The resort has limited some of their amenities but remains open. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and maybe no business operators are more aware of that than those that run resorts in the Brainerd lakes area.

Carolyn Bare is general manager of Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. She said business is down by about 90% with its water park and restaurant closed due to social distancing.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently gave directions to shut down schools, bars, restaurants and salons statewide that officials believe were warranted amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“What we have done is anybody who has made a reservation — we are canceling them at no fee — just doing everything we can to make sure that the community knows that we are in full support of the shutting down,” Bare said.

Known as the vacation destination of Minnesota, the Crow Wing County region boasts several well-known and longtime resorts such as Grand View Lodge in Nisswa that are facing an unprecedented challenge: COVID-19.


“Unfortunately, with the closing of our restaurants, bars and recreational facilities — pools, health clubs and spas — we have had to lay off in excess of 100 employees,” said Mark Ronnei, managing director of Grand View Lodge.

Arrowwood Lodge

Arrowwood Lodge features an indoor water park with its water slides that it bills as its top attraction, but it and the restaurant are shuttered temporarily due to coronavirus concerns.

“We have, through instruction by the Minnesota Health Department, shut down the water park. The restaurant is take-out only for in-house guests. And our fitness facility is also shut down,” Bare said. “Our hotel is open for business.”

As of Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Health officials have confirmed 77 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that first emerged in China in late 2019, with the closest case or cases to Crow Wing County reportedly in Benton County.

“The panicking is the real problem,” Bare said of the coronavirus.

With more than 7,000 confirmed cases in the United States alone as of Wednesday, it has proven to be a nationwide problem with almost 140 deaths across the country.


“I think we all just need to take a breath — take care of our neighbors, take care of our families. And when the time comes, we can all come together again, but we just need to calm down, take care of each other, and not be pointing fingers or anything like that,” Bare said.

Bare said some of Arrowwood Lodge’s employees have been laid off due to lack of guests. Other resorts share a similar story.

“We are going to have these jobs for employees when we are back up and running, and we will be back up and running … in a month or two when everybody is traveling again, and we're all in the best place to get back to normal,” Bare said.

Grand View Lodge

All of the restaurants at Grand View Lodge and its spa are closed. The resort’s pools, recreation center and group activities — and transportation and shuttles — are suspended at this time.

“Although we are still open for lodging and take-out on a special menu, we have made a few changes to keep everyone safe and help our guests feel secure,” the resort’s website stated.

“Our spa operation is the largest in Minnesota. It has 40 employees and it is now closed. Our new recreational facility had almost 20 employees and that's closed. We have three restaurants open all winter ... and now we're just doing a little bit of take-out business,” Ronnei said.

“Also, weddings have been postponed. I mean this is a major disruption in people's lives. And so it's much more than just business.”

Ronnei said the resort has about 75% occupancy on the weekends during the winter, or about 1,000 guests, but expects about 200 or 300 guests now.


“The whole area, unfortunately, will notice the dramatic drop off — the larger resorts have — at this time of year, particularly because there’s not a lot of other tourists here,” Ronnei said.

The resort’s website states limited housekeeping service is provided but guests were reassured, too, their cabin will be “cleaned to our high standards and disinfected before arrival.”

“We don't anticipate that we'll have much of anything for group business in April or May. And I think our competitors are probably in that same situation,” Ronnei said.

“Our reservations are trying to explain to people that if you're just looking for a break and a place to go for a walk in the woods and be with your family we can provide a nice, quiet, relaxing kind of safe haven from the madness of the city.”

Trump administration officials recently warned the coronavirus outbreak may cause the unemployment rate to soar as high as 20% in the United States.

“These are real people and these are families, who have families, and we're trying to do the best job we can to keep as many people as possible,” Ronnei said. “Grand View has been around a 100 years, and it'll be around another 100 years. But these are real people's lives and stresses and strains.”

Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort

Tom Kavanaugh is co-owner of Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort. He said the coronavirus has not impacted the resort’s summer business — so far.

“We altered our cancellation policy. Traditionally, in the summer, we're a 60-day cancellation. We've lowered it to 30 because we wanted to make sure that people didn't make rash decisions, and it gives them a lot more time to wait until we get much closer to summer,” Kavanaugh said.


“Right now, we’re just running with our normal off-season specials, which are pretty deep because that's basically ‘stay one night, the second night is free’ — and that was before coronavirus,” Kavanaugh said of the resort, which does not have any dining facilities.

“We have not had to lay off anyone, and that's because, especially at this time of the year … the ownership does all the work. We only have, you know, two to three other workers at this time of the year. In the summer, of course, we have a larger staff. ...

“This is going to get better, and people are going to want to travel, and they're gonna want a vacation and they should continue to think that way,” Kavanaugh said.

Breezy Point Resort

Breezy Point Resort put out a statement on its website stating its officials are receiving regular communications from federal and local agencies “to make sure we stay up-to-date and monitor the situation closely ... taking additional steps to ensure the health and safety of our guests.”

“It’s not the greatest of times, but it certainly could be worse,” said David Spizzo, vice president of Breezy Point Resort, which recently hosted the Polar Plunge benefiting Special Olympics.

The resort also mandated cleaning of high-use, public areas at least three times a day, according to its website, using disinfectant “specifically designed to eliminate viruses and bacteria (including coronavirus),” besides additional sanitizers and tissues in all public areas.

“It’s a struggle when the governor shuts things down that are directly critical to our business. It makes it a challenge. But we agree with what he's doing. I mean, there's no doubt that we agree with what he's doing,” Spizzo said of the shutdown of the resort’s restaurant.


Resort employees are reminded by their employers to be “especially diligent in their wellness routines,” and are asked to remain home if they are sick or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

“We still do have people planning to come up this weekend, and we've been flexible there on food and beverage packages. … We still can serve food and we're trying to come up with a creative way to get food to people in their rooms,” Spizzo said.

Resort officials said the resort employees are disinfecting areas more frequently that see more hand touching, such as door handles, sinks, dishwashing areas and cooking surfaces.

According to the resort’s website, the cleaning frequency of kitchen preparation areas has been increased with sanitization at the end of each shift and full kitchen sanitization daily.

“We have laid off some of our food and beverage staff, given the mandated order from the governor,” Spizzo said. “We’re trying to keep people working as much as possible because … there's still cleaning to do. We really hesitate to lay anybody off. That is not our goal at this point.”

Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake

Because of the coronavirus, Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake posted information throughout the resort on proper hygiene and reducing the chance of spreading germs, according to its website.

“It's been devastating to the whole travel industry and vacation industry and we're no different,” General Manager Eric Peterson said. “When a big part of our business is group gatherings, whether it be families … conferences, associations — groups like that — that are coming up, and we're providing the facility for them to do education and things like that,” Peterson said.

Sanitizer is at the resort’s front desk, and staff are wiping down counters, phones, computers and high-traffic areas in the lobby regularly, the resort officials wanted to assure guests.


“We had a great year up until mid-March, and now, you know, the next 45 days are certainly significantly off with the groups, you know, choosing to postpone or cancel their events,” Peterson said.

According to the resort’s website, the housekeeping department had refresher training on standard practice of disinfecting surfaces, such as counters, remotes, phones and more.

“With the governor's announcement … your auxiliary facilities — your pool area, your fitness areas, your recreation gatherings, your food and beverage — essentially, you're taking the ‘resort’ out of the resort,” Peterson said.

“Without the business levels we had before, we've definitely had a reduction of hours available (for employees) without the number of guests to service — we are in the service industry.”

Hospitality industry

The governor signed an executive order this week ensuring those who cannot work due to the outbreak can access unemployment insurance quickly and with little bureaucratic red tape.

“I’m thankful to the governor that he did think through the unemployment change, so that people are immediately available for that,” said Ronnei of Grand View Lodge.

Bare of Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes said layoffs at that facility are hopefully just a temporary measure.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that our staff knows once this all goes over — hopefully, it goes over sooner rather than later — that they have jobs to come back to, and they will have a building to come back to,” Bare said. “We’ll weather the storm just like everybody else and do everything that we can do on our side, doing the recommended cleaning recommendations … to make sure there's a safe, clean place to come to when this all goes over and people are traveling again.”

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

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I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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