EMPIRE — The sleeping bear on the state’s western shoreline is waking up just in time for Memorial weekend and the typical launch of the tourist season for northern Michigan.
This year, that launch is not so typical as the state deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is partially opening May 22, with people able to hike the Heritage Trail, have a picnic, visit the Dune Climb, launch a boat and use vault toilets, most of which are located at trailheads.
But several areas of the park will stay closed — the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, all campgrounds, all museums and indoor exhibits and full-service restrooms.
The park is still aiming for a July 1 opening for those areas, said Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of the lakeshore. He said the park will likely see a lot of visitors this weekend, and park passes will remain suspended.
“We’re hoping that everybody behaves themselves, practices social distancing and recreates responsibly given the pandemic that we’re still in,” Ulrich said.
If a spike in coronavirus cases is seen, the area may have to go back to an earlier phase of the re-opening, he said.
Trails and other outdoor areas of the park that are now being opened had remained open after the state shut down in mid-March, but were closed in mid-April after crowds of people were spotted over Easter weekend not following social distancing guidelines, Ulrich said.
“We had bountiful evidence of people not following the governor’s orders,” he said. “That’s why we closed our trailheads. We’re giving it another try to see if people can do better this time.”
People could still hike overland, but had to park along a county road and stay off trails, including the Heritage Trail.
Not everybody has has followed the rules. Beryl Skrocki lives at the base of Wilco Hill in Empire and her neighborhood backs up to the park. At the top of the hill is the Empire Bluff trailhead.
“Ever since that trail has been closed there have been overflowing cars,” Skrocki said. “On a nice day it’s packed. People have been itching to get out.”
Skrocki, who owns Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, said she’s not scared, but a little concerned about people bringing the coronavirus to the area, which has had fewer cases of COVID-19 compared to other areas of the state.
“I think as long as people are respectful and follow those basic rules there is no reason to be frightened,” Skrocki said.
But she realizes not everybody is gifted with common sense and she has some skepticism. People in the area have been very diligent about following the rules and it would be frustrating to see a spike in cases.
Ulrich said visitors from COVID-19 hotspots should not be traveling per the governor’s guidelines, but as with most everything else during the pandemic, people have to self-govern.
The park is working with the National Park Service Office of Public Health and following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bonnie Nescot, a regular hiker, was walking in Glen Haven on Wednesday and was surprised to see several cars driving by. She counted about 25.
“It was a constant stream of cars and not one Michigan plate,” said Nescot, co-owner of Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor.
Is she scared about all the people heading north?
“God, yes, everyone’s on edge,” Nescot said. “Those of us that live here and are older are living on the edge with this invisible thing that’s out there and we’re behaving.”
Add a little alcohol to the mix and you never know what will happen, she said.
“I am grateful for the visitors, but I really want everyone to behave and be respectful to everyone else. I want everyone to not lose track of the fact that there’s a pandemic going on.”