TOLEDO, Ohio - The Memorial Day weekend could serve as a barometer for Lake Erie businesses, now operating during an unprecedented public health crisis.
Safety restrictions enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of tourism season on the lake by about six weeks. Fishing charters were given clearance to run on May 12, and must operate under new safety protocols.
Vice President of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association Dave Spangler says there's no way to make up for the lost time.
"This is going to be a very, very lean year, but we're ready to get people out," says Spangler. "The Walleye fishing is, right now, the best it's ever been in the lake, ever. That's the real catch to everything else here, because it's just been fantastic."
Director of the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau Peter Huston says this is the first weekend that the majority of retail, restaurant and lodging businesses on the island can open.
"Between the cleaning and the masks, and the social distancing and all the other guidelines, all of the businesses here are fully embracing that new guideline, and that you feel comfortable to come and visit," says Huston.
Some Lake Erie tourism organizations are projecting at least a 40% drop in travel-related spending compared to last year. Spangler says there is some concern about bookings for the remainder of the season.
"We've had people that have cancelled trips that they previously had set up for one of two reasons," says Spangler. "They're not comfortable to go and do this, that's just a personal thing. And then of course, the other thing is, a lot of folks don't have the money right now."
While things will be a little different this year, Huston adds that Lake Erie businesses and their workers are still hopeful for a good season.
"We employ a lot of people, and we provide a lot of income during the summertime," says Huston. "And so, it's not going to be the summer that you remember. It's going to be a lower impact, there's going to be less employees."
According to the Lake Erie Foundation, in the eight counties that border the lake, tourism-related spending topped $15 billion as of 2017, supporting more than 127,000 jobs.