Taking It in Stride: How Great Lakes islanders are weathering the COVID-19 storm

Taking It in Stride: How Great Lakes islanders are weathering the COVID-19 storm
March 23, 2020 Sharon Oosthoek

In the tiny community of Kelleys Island, Ohio, St. Patrick’s Day normally marks the unofficial start of spring.

Seasonal residents cross Lake Erie on the ferry to re-open homes shuttered over the winter. Business people turn their minds to the tourists who will follow a few weeks later. And islanders gather to share a drink at the local watering hole, The Village Pump.

“It’s a pretty big day here,” said The Village Pump’s bartender, Lisa Klonaris. “We have corned beef and green beer. A lot of people come over from the mainland just for that.”

This year, however, Kelleys Island’s time-honored tradition gave way to COVID-19. There are no reports among the island’s 125 permanent residents of the disease caused by the coronavirus that has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 9,000 by March 20.

But islanders are not immune to its fallout.

While some people did come over on the Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line on St. Patrick’s Day, the service implemented restrictions two days later. On March 19, the ferry’s owners began asking motorists to stay in their vehicles and walk-on passengers to keep their distance from others. As of Monday, the ferry is still operating its normal March schedule. The ferry’s restrooms are also closed.

Photo by Derek Jensen via wikimedia.org public domain

Kelleys Island, Ohio, Photo by Derek Jensen via wikimedia.org public domain

Like elsewhere in the state, the island’s school is closed and its pub is offering take-out service only in accordance with Gov. Mike DeWine’s orders. Staff at The Village Pump had been preparing for more customers than usual, given the state’s presidential primary was scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day. But this year, DeWine shut down the primary to help slow the spread of the virus.

Mayor Ron Ehrbar was among the dozens of island residents who popped by the pub to pick up corned beef sandwiches to eat at home. While he missed the tradition, he agrees with the governor’s orders.

“Ohio is one of the leading states in implementing restrictions to deter this disease,” he said. “We know what happened in Italy and Spain. We don’t want that to happen here.”

Both Italy and Spain are in the midst of nation-wide lockdowns on citizens’ movements.

Most residents are striving to keep their social distance, said school board president Cindy Herndon.

“I started a new Stephen King novel today,” she said. “I’m reading a lot. We all are.”

While the island’s school has only six students, it’s also closed as per the governor’s orders. Teachers are delivering lessons online, while students are dropping off assignments for marking and picking up new ones from a basket outside the school.

There are no changes to the emergency medical service, whose volunteer paramedics treat minor illnesses and accidents. For more serious issues, residents can still take a helicopter to Toledo.

Game nights cancelled

On the neighboring island community of Put-in-Bay, with a population hovering around 138, it’s much the same story and residents are adjusting.

Winter is normally a time of house gatherings and game nights, but people are taking social distancing seriously and staying home, said the school’s social studies teacher Craig Schuffenecker.

He and his fellow teachers are doing their lessons online and so far, it’s working out.

“I just had my ‘normal day of class’ with almost 100 percent attendance for an online chat,” said Schuffenecker.

While the ferry is still running, Miller Boat Line’s website posted an announcement strongly discouraging passengers who are not residents, employees or doing business from travelling to the two islands it serves – Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass.

“The islands are not a place to escape to, nor a safe haven from events the world is experiencing,” reads a post from March 18. “We are a community of senior citizens, families, and children who live here. Those returning from vacations and winter residences please refer to government recommendations about self-quarantine to help reduce the risk of exposure on the islands.”

On Monday, Miller announced it will be running its regular schedule with planned updates to go into effect on Tuesday due to the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Photo by Jamie McCaffrey via flickr.com cc 2.0

Looking out from the deck of the Wolfe Island ferry, Photo by Jamie McCaffrey via flickr.com cc 2.0


Meanwhile, on Lake Ontario’s Wolfe Island in the province of Ontario, the local health clinic remains open and the provincially run ferry is currently in service, with restrictions about motorists staying in cars and walk-on passengers giving the crew and each other a wide berth. Most everything else – the school, library and all restaurants – is closed in accordance with the provincial government’s orders.

Wolfe Island resident Betty Doyle is a retired teacher whose grandchildren are staying with her indefinitely while their parents, including a nurse, continue to work. Doyle is keeping them busy with outdoor activities such as scavenger hunts and hikes along the mostly deserted beach at Big Sandy Bay.

“We saw eight people at the beach and we have 40 acres of property, so it’s easy to be socially distanced here,” said Doyle.

That being said, the community of roughly 1,300 “acts like a big family,” and people are checking in on each other – from a distance, Doyle said.

Photo by Lain via flickr.com cc 2.0

Washington Island, Wisconsin, Photo by Lain via flickr.com cc 2.0

Over on Washington Island, Wisconsin, in Lake Michigan, its 700 or so permanent residents are taking things in stride, said principal Michelle Kanipes, whose school is closed, along with all others in the state.

“The climate is one of calm,” she said. “The staff have been outstanding in terms of working to remain positive and patient.”

The island’s ferry is still running, and its grocery store is still open. People are stocking up, but nothing out of the ordinary, said Marianna Gibson, treasurer at the Washington Island Chamber of Commerce.

“It seems people are used to being at home especially this time of year,” she said. “They have many things they can do to be ready for the summer business so are taking it in stride.”

Featured image: Christmas in July at Put-in-Bay, Photo by Lorraine Boissoneault


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *