BRAINERD, Minn. -- With the Minnesota fishing opener set for this weekend, Congressman Pete Stauber, R-Duluth, hosted a conference call Friday, May 8, with officials and small business owners as part of a push to reopen aspects of the Minnesota economy and relax some restrictions amid COVID-19.

In particular, Stauber and his guests pointed to outdoor recreation, whether that’s fishing, resorts, camping or houseboats, among other amenities, that serves as a key economic driver throughout the Eighth Congressional District. The fishing opener, along with the coming summer months, are peak tourism times in a tourism driven economy for District 8, Stauber said, and as such it behooves Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers in St. Paul to reopen.

“I believe the health and safety of Minnesotans is paramount,” Stauber said. “However, I believe Minnesotans are a practical people and, I think in terms of social distancing, Minnesotans can be trusted to do so safely in a boat, on open water, and in fresh air.”

The U.S. Department of Labor is reporting the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression, while the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce has reported the lakes area is experiencing layoffs north of 5,000 and many of its member businesses are struggling to stay in operation.

Stauber was joined by Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota; Bill and Tom Dougherty, owners of Rainy Lake Houseboats in International Falls; Alissa Boser, owner of Pete’s Retreat on Mille Lacs Lake; Paul McDonald, St. Louis County commissioner; Blayne Hall, owner of Williams and Hall Outfitters in Ely; state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm; as well as Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

Speakers pointed to restrictions in Walz’s stay at home order, which they said are arbitrary and hurting struggling businesses — such as, they pointed out, allowing Minnesotans to camp in recreational vehicles but not cloth tents, or to restrict them from renting houseboats and camping overnight. Restrictions don’t change the fact that many Minnesotans still cherish this time of year as a way to celebrate the outdoors, they said, and the state should find ways to safely and productively honor that tradition during this time.

“For most resorts and campgrounds, summers are our only source of income,” Boser said. “So if our campgrounds can’t open in their entirety, it would be completely detrimental to not only our resort and campground but surrounding local communities.”

Speaking from different perspectives of the tourist economy, lawmakers and business owners pointed to notions of pragmatism, as it should be easier to practice social distancing on a wide open lake, or camping in the middle of wilderness, than nearly anywhere else. By relaxing stay-at-home restrictions, they said, Minnesotans have the self-autonomy to address issues as diverse as economic fallout to mental health.

“It comes down to one thing: common sense,” McDonald said. “Once you find a campsite, stay put, so you don't spread your germs. And as always, please don’t leave a trace. Staking people one on top of each other in a campground goes against the idea of social distancing, but there is no known option for outdoor recreation that incorporates all the guidelines for safety during this pandemic.”

Kilian said the lakes area looks to be hit particularly hard with its dependency on tourism, hospitality, restaurants and others, and recreation-tourism sectors of the economy are the slowest to reopen or rehire workers.

“Yesterday we were on the line — 40 local chambers on the line with Gov. Walz — and he told us that 91% of employees are now back to work or have an opportunity to work again,” Kilian said. “I want to talk about the 9%. That's 350,000 people in Minnesota, and most of them work in the hospitality industry, in the service industry, resorts and campgrounds, restaurants, retailers, Main Street Minnesota, that's a big part of our economy.”

“I wanted to send a message on behalf of our area and many other areas in the state that our businesses are taking this seriously,” Kilian added. “We're working on plans to reopen safely. We can be trusted, our businesses can be trusted, our campgrounds and fisherpersons can be trusted. And we care about each other. We care about our residents to serve our customers and tourists. And I think we can do it better than anybody else.”

East Gull Lake issues proclamation to reopen

The dire circumstances of the local economy have also prompted some municipalities and their officials to lobby Walz for reopening.

The city of East Gull Lake, home to several area resorts, issued a mayoral proclamation Friday in support of Hospitality Minnesota strongly encouraging Walz to “allow the only businesses in the city to open responsibility in order to maintain the economy in our area.”

The proclamation stated restaurants and resorts will provide safe environments, focus on outdoor dining and limit seating to promote social distancing, along with other public health measures.

“We ask you to consider helping our tourism business open more facilities in a responsible manner. Combined, our East Gull Lake area has many years of experience in the hospitality field and has been a leader in the State Tourism business for up to 90 years,” an accompanying email from East Gull Lake City Administrator Rob Mason to Walz stated. “Let us prove to you that our businesses can be leaders once more in overcoming this pandemic.

“We have guests that have been with our resorts for more than 4 generations on specific times during the summer months. They look forward to this time with their families every year and the memories that they have made. These families have become part of our families as well and we look forward to them visiting every year. We have been responsible in the past during similar tough times and the safety of our guests and employees will always be our top priority.”