ST. PAUL — God willing, there will be a musical in Medora, N.D. this summer.
Organizers of the city's renowned, eponymous production still hope to produce it come May, even as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to derail summer travel plans. Once the public health crisis ceases, the musical could help to boost morale — as well as the economy.
"We think it’s pretty important not just for Medora but for the area," Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation president Randy Hatzenbuhler said, "because we know there’s a lot of people traveling through the state to get here."
The annual Medora Musical, an ode to the Wild West and to President Theodore Roosevelt's time in western North Dakota, draws thousands of people to that same region each summer it's held. And at least for now, the show and other regional tourist magnets like it are still poised to play their normal roles in the travel season to come.
With businesses closing across the region to contain the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, the leisure and hospitality industry faces tough questions about how to proceed. Restaurants and cafes have already been hit hard by the shutdown; in Minnesota alone, at least 48,500 food service workers applied for unemployment insurance since March 16, more than any other affected sector in the state. Fear of contracting and spreading the disease, coupled with the implementation of shelter-in-place restrictions in some areas, has also led to flight cancellations and scuttled travel plans.
The repercussions for the industry could be severe at the national level, and according to the U.S. Travel Association estimate may cause 5.9 million job losses by the end of April.
Despite that grim forecast, some regional industry professionals have not yet decided whether to cancel or postpone flagship events, or close off access to popular destinations.
Minnesota State Parks remain open with no immediate plans to close. They're actually seeing more visitors than is normal for this time of year, according to a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman, which is why the agency now recommends that they avoid busier parks to reduce their risk of infection.
The agency could not say if the outbreak will affect their visitor forecast for the months ahead, according to spokesman Chris Niskanen.
"Like all state agencies, we are adjusting how we do business," Niskanen said via email. "If there are changes in our operations, we will let the public know as soon as possible so they can adjust their plans, if necessary."
Likewise, organizers of the Minnesota State Fair said they do not anticipate a need to cancel or postpone the event, scheduled to begin in late August. In a statement, they said "the State Fair management team is meeting on a regular basis and is continuously monitoring updates from health organizations, local and federal government agencies and the broader event community with regard to COVID-19."
None of this is to say that the outbreak hasn't been turbulent for the regional tourism industry. Wall Drug, the tourist-friendly shopping mall in southwestern South Dakota, has temporarily closed its dining room and retail space due to the outbreak.
Owners of the company declined to be interviewed, but CEO Rick Hustead appeared optimistic in the post to the Wall Drug website announcing the closures.
"My grandmother and grandfather started Wall Drug Store during the Great Depression. In the 90 years since then, our family has worked hard to earn your trust and loyalty, and we thank you for that opportunity," he said. "As we have during other challenging times, we will work tirelessly to persevere through this together."
Travel restrictions imposed due to the outbreak may affect the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation's ability seasonal workers, Hatzenbuhler said, some of whom come to North Dakota from other countries on temporary worker visas. In addition to presenting the Medora Musical, the non-profit group produces other education and historical events throughout the city.
Because spring only just started and summer is a ways off, some remain hopeful that the outbreak can be brought to heel in the U.S. before it really takes a toll on the travel season.
In Sturgis, S.D., organizers and officials responsible for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally still feel confident that they can draw a crowd for what will be the event's 80th anniversary. City Manager Daniel Ainslie said this summer's rally is anticipated to be the largest yet and may see higher attendance than even the 75th anniversary event, which drew in approximately 750,000 people throughout its run.
But given the virus's rapid spread throughout the U.S., Ainslie said, "I don’t think anyone would be surprised if it would be a little less than that."
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