Angel Welke and her husband Paul own and operate Island Airways, the committed aviation service provider for Beaver Island. As such, the Welkes run the air ambulance that serves the island, which is located in the northern part of Lake Michigan and is home to about 600 year-round residents. When the island had a possible COVID-19 patient earlier this year, it was Paul Welke piloting the air ambulance.
“The EMS came out and put him in full out PPE gear, and when I watched them do that, I was really tough and cool with COVID until that very moment. Then it hit home,” said Angel Welke. “I said, ‘You don’t have to do it,’ and he said ‘No, I do have to do this, this is what you do. We need to take care of everyone.’ Everyone on Beaver Island feels that way.”
The Welkes are like thousands of full-time residents on Great Lakes islands: balancing fears of COVID-19 infection with the economic needs of their island businesses, enjoying their remote locations but realizing the pandemic won’t spare them.
When the ferry service to Beaver Island postponed their normal April start date and shut down for the month of April due to the onset of COVID-19, Island Airways was deemed essential and became the only mode of transportation to and from the island. The Welkes’ crew switched to 95 percent freight mode to help stores stock up for the summer. But Island Airways wasn’t the only business on Beaver Island to adapt.
“The grocery store adapted and the restaurants adapted, and they kept feeding us and they kept keeping me supplied,” said Angel Welke. “It is part of the reason that Beaver Island is so special to me. It’s home. And it was really good to know that when things got really tough, we did what we needed to do and we were all there for each other.”
St. Patrick’s Day is a big event for Beaver Island, known as America’s Emerald Isle. This year, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were extremely quiet. However, since then, visitation to the island has taken a turn for the better, and numbers are steadily increasing.
On an average April, Island Airways hauls about 1,600 passengers. This April, they hauled only 200. In May, they transported 55 percent of their typical passenger numbers, and half way through June they’re on track to hit about 80 to 90 percent of their average passengers.
Angel Welke has received phone calls from potential visitors who are looking for a safe place that is close to home while still having the opportunity to see something new.
Now, with the ferry up and running, Beaver Island is making the most of the summer and continues to provide a safe place for those tourists to escape to. According to Beaver Island Boat Company’s website, the vessel is cleaned between every trip, and the crew and its passengers are utilizing masks, while the company as a whole keeps an eye on the day-to-day changes and recommendations of the CDC.
June tourism on the island has been a bit slow, according to Paul Cole, director of Beaver Island’s Chamber of Commerce. However, Paul expects a fairly busy July and August, based upon the bookings and reservations he sees.
“I think people are looking for a safe place to go to, and Beaver Island offers that,” Cole said. “It’s a big island that has a ton of natural land, so people can go hiking, with so many beaches you can go to. There might be 10 people on a whole beach that’s a mile long, and I think that’s what’s appealing to people this year.”
In Put-In-Bay, Ohio, an island community in Lake Erie with about 138 residents, summer tourism is following a similar trajectory.
Peter Hurston, director of Put-In-Bay’s chamber of commerce, noted that although most festivals and events have been cancelled through July 4 — the annual 4th of July fireworks display has been cancelled — the number of summer visitors remains steady.
“We did not reopen to visitors until May 22nd. At first it was slow, but with other regional attractions like Cedar Point closed and no sports, we started to see lots of visitation, In fact, we are seeing midsummer numbers in June,” said Hurston.
Hurston said that overall the businesses are succeeding, though some are understaffed. He said Put-In-Bay is surviving and the people coming are eager to visit. The island hasn’t cancelled any events from August through October, and they hope to keep it that way.
Miller Boat Line, one of the ferry services to Put-In-Bay, started running on April 27 and continues to carry passengers to this island with increased precautions such as sanitizing after each trip and asking passengers to remain in their vehicle for the duration of the trip.
Similar precautions have been implemented for all the ferries that service other Great Lakes islanders. Over on Washington Island, a Wisconsin island situated in Lake Michigan, The Washington Island Ferry Line has been running smoothly, albeit operating on a temporarily reduced schedule. The ferry asks that you wear a mask when you are not in your vehicle and to stay in your vehicle as much as possible.
According to Washington Island’s website, all lodging facilities are open, all restaurants are open, and all island parks are open. However, a large majority of festivals and events that bring islanders and visitors together in large numbers have been cancelled.
One such event is Sol Gras Music Festival, which was originally scheduled for June 19 and 20 on Washington Island. Focused around bluegrass music, the inaugural event was intended to allow festival goers to enjoy everything the island has to offer while creating a memorable music weekend at Washington Island Campground. The event was canceled and rescheduled for June 2021.
Pat Schmidt, owner of Backroad Events and promoter of Sol Gras Music Festival, wanted to bring the festival to Washington Island, where her mom’s side of the family originated.
“Our research showed that we were gonna be peaking in our ticket sales between mid March and mid May,” said Schmidt. “COVID hit pretty much mid March, and our ticket sales just plummeted.”
Although events like Sol Gras Music Festival had to be cancelled, the island continues to be a comfortable and safe get away for visitors. Their website encourages visitors to enjoy the beauty of the island, while observing 6-foot social distancing wherever you are on the island.
On Beaver Island, Angel Welke and Cole have planned a drive-thru parade for the 4th of July, in order to still celebrate the holiday while socially distancing.
“You know, when I think of Beaver Island, I always think of the 4th of July Parade,” said Welke. “So we got creative and we’re having a drive-thru parade. We had to ask ourselves: What do we want to convey about Beaver Island?”
Beaver Island’s motto is “Simple, Pure, and Resilient.” Welke and Cole wanted to demonstrate that resilience with the parade. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, as residents from Holy Cross Church to Whiskey Point lighthouse prepare to decorate their homes and businesses.
“We have some really good things going for us,” Welke said. “We have a lot of people working towards the same goal of preserving through this and coming out on the other side even stronger. When times are tough, you buckle down, and you put your shoulder to it, and you get it done.”
Read more Great Lakes Now COVID-19 news:
Taking It in Stride: How Great Lakes islanders are weathering the COVID-19 storm
COVID-19 Comeback: Great Lakes businesses and scientists bounce back
Fishing and Freighters: Great Lakes industries take COVID-19 economic hit
Shuttered Canada-US border highlights different approaches to the pandemic – and differences between the 2 countries
Featured image: Put-in-Bay during Christmas in July. (Photo by Lorraine Boissoneault)