Life looks different at the Iowa Great Lakes

The biggest change in the Iowa Great Lakes since last summer has been the same change the world has faced the past several weeks and months. The Iowa Great Lakes weren’t spared from the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the related closures and safety measures set forth by the state and federal government.

But like many areas across the country and around the world, the Lakes and surrounding communities came together when it was needed most and look forward to welcoming visitors back as soon as possible.

Cancellations and Changes

Unfortunately not everything will be the same regardless of whenever everyone is allowed to go about business as usual.

Several concerts at the Roof Garden have already been canceled or postponed to dates yet to be determined. Spencer’s summer celebration Flagfest was canceled, as were Milford’s annual July festivities, Pioneer Days. The Milford Commercial Club did indicate they would look into putting together a parade or community barbecue if it was determined safe to do so.

Other events that were either amended in some form or canceled altogether include Walleye Weekend, Okoboji Summer Theatre, RAGBRAI and Iowa’s Ride. RiseFest, the annual Christian music festival in Sheldon, was postponed until September.

Supporting Locally

“The chamber has done a rocking good job at really showcasing local businesses, supporting locally, encouraging people here to get their food to-go, shopping curbside and all that,” said Rebecca Peters, Okoboji Tourism director. “That’s right in their wheelhouse and they’re doing a great job.”

As restaurants and bars shifted to carryout only, the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce compiled lists of the various hours of operation and ever-changing conditions at restaurants and retail outlets as some pivoted to allowing online shopping, phone orders and curbside pickup.

Lighting up the Park

Arnolds Park Amusement Park lit up the night to honor hometown heroes. In addition to the Ferris wheel and Legend roller coaster, the Promenade arches glowed in a variety of colors in tribute to health care workers, first responders, police, firefighters, EMTs, farmers, essential workers, and the victims of the virus, and included one rainbow arch as a symbol of better days to come. The arches were also lit up in the school colors of area districts to recognize their senior classes of 2020.

Iowa Lakes Corridor

“We already had a lot of expertise in helping small businesses, so we pivoted and started helping businesses with how to utilize the government programs that were becoming available,” said Kiley Miller, president and CEO of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation. “And helping businesses think strategically about how to improve and grow your business during the shutdown. You don’t have customers but you have PPP dollars. Now is the time to invest in customer service training, or improving operations.”

Miller noted that it was important for everyone to continue to support local businesses however possible.

“We have wonderful restaurants and shops because of the summer tourism and it’s imperative we think about ways of helping those businesses get through this time,” Miller said. “I think in that regard the Chamber of Commerce deserves lots of accolades for moving so quickly and encouraging shopping locally and continuing to frequent restaurants.”

How to best go about reopening the Lakes area was also a major topic of concern.

“We’ve initiated some conversations about the restart and what’s going to happen, but the true mechanics we won’t know until the governor tells us,” Miller said. “Nonetheless there’s a real opportunity in front of Okoboji to have a good structured, managed process that says to families that we care about your health and your family and these are the steps we’re taking to keep up with the standards set forth by the state. That way when a family is done sheltering in place and ready to get out in the sunshine they’ll say we’re going to Okoboji — we love it there, it’s going to be a safe, fun place to be. So we’ve been meeting with business and community leaders to plan for that process.”

Virtual Reality

Facilities like the Pearson Lakes Art Center and Dickinson County Nature Center quickly switched gears to offer virtual tours of art shows and lead activities online for the whole family.

Okoboji Tourism did something similar.

They compiled a variety of Okoboji-themed Zoom backgrounds for people to use as they work and conduct business meetings from home. They’ve also put together several videos so folks can virtually experience what the Iowa Great Lakes have to offer.

“We know everyone loves Okoboji. This is their happy place so to speak,” Peters said. “We want people to have happy memories of Okoboji and for this to be at the forefront of their minds so when it’s safe to visit again, this is the first place they want to come. The Zoom backgrounds have been awesome. People have really enjoyed those and the virtual experiences give people from all over the world access to see some of the cool things we have right here in Okoboji.”

Working Together

Numerous area businesses and individuals stepped up during the past months to help out however they could.

“What the YMCA has done with the community table — they’ve really adapted that nicely,” Peters said.

In addition to being able to pick up meals at YMCA of the Okobojis, families could pick up activity packs provided by Camp Foster.

Pearson Lakes Art Center has also been putting together weekly craft bags for people to pick up and enjoy at home.

Okoboji Foundation created a disaster relief fund through which they can donate directly to organizations in need of assistance.

Century Farms Distillery and West O Beer combined efforts to produce hand sanitizer.

Lakes Marketing and Print collaborated with Chris and Brad Shanahan of the Mail House in Sioux City; Shawn Stone, professor of physics and computer science at Buena Vista University; Adam Perry, band director in Sioux Rapids; Chad Tischer at Iowa Lakes Community College, and others to run a fleet of 3D printers manufacturing face shields for front-line health workers.

Veridian Fire Protective Gear in Spencer utilized its equipment to make hospital isolation gowns.

Custom Creations Spirit Lake designed “Okoboji Strong” T-shirts, with the resulting proceeds benefiting Lakes area residents affected by the pandemic.

“I think everyone has done a great job stepping up, helping out and supporting their community in any way they can,” Peters said. “As the days go on and the longer this lasts, we’re going to appreciate the businesses we have even more. Like any tough times, people really step up to the plate and come together.”

Welcoming Back Visitors

The tourism office worked closely with the cities and emergency management, as well as the department of public health and governor’s office to determine the parameters of how and when to invite people back to the Lakes.

“I’m in communication with tourism people from across the state as we work together to create a unified message for when it’s safe to travel again and welcome everyone back,” Peters said.

The local tourism industry supports over 2,000 jobs in a county with just over 17,000 permanent residents.

“It’s so important to the area and affects everybody,” Peters said. “So we’re walking that tightrope right now, looking out for the health and well-being of everyone and getting ready to welcome people back when it’s time and when it’s safe.”

Gov. Reynolds issued a proclamation Monday, April 27, allowing additional businesses and religious organizations in 77 counties, including Dickinson and all surrounding northwest Iowa counties, to reopen their doors, with some limitations, beginning Friday, May 1.

Restaurants, fitness centers and retail stores could reopen at half capacity. Social, community, recreational and leisure sporting events would continue to be limited to 10 people.

All places allowed to reopen were required to continue adhering to social distancing guidelines and measures set forth by the Department of Public Health.

“Restaurants and retail businesses in the area have shown their professionalism and commitment to protecting employees and customers during the first days of reopening. We should all be proud, but then again that’s what we would expect from Northwest Iowa,” said Kiley Miller, president and CEO of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation.