BISMARCK, N.D. — On a chilly spring day in the tourist town of Medora, local business owners gathered outside in a parking lot, each 6 feet from the others. It wasn’t a normal venue for the Medora Chamber of Commerce, but the COVID-19 pandemic had reached the United States, and the group needed to remain socially distanced.
“There was great concern at the beginning of the pandemic, at the beginning of our tourist season, how we would reopen the town,” Chamber of Commerce secretary Anna Killian said. “I think overall, once the season got going, most of our members would tell you that it’s been a good, smooth season. Visitation is down somewhat, traffic patterns have changed a bit, but we’re a busy little town.”
Only one business in town has closed due to COVID-19 -- a store that was entering into only its second year of business, according to Killian.
“A lot of our shops in Medora are small and close-quartered, and while some business owners have taken steps to figure out a way to control traffic flow or limit the amount of people who are in at the same time, this particular store we believe just didn’t have the team members to make it feasible,” she told The Bismarck Tribune.
The centerpiece of Medora tourism, the outdoor Medora Musical, was delayed by about a month, opening for the season on June 19.
Staffing across the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which operates the musical and other tourism-related businesses, was reduced 40-60% depending on the area of service, according to Marketing and Communications Director Justin Fisk.
The choice to reduce staffing was made as a result of reduced business hours and services, as well as in anticipation of revenue losses due to fewer visitors, Fisk said.
“We tried to use Theodore Roosevelt as guidance,” he said of the former U.S. president who hunted and ranched in the Badlands in the late 1800s. “Do what we can with what we have.”
Reimagining the 2020 musical began in March, Fisk said, “and changed every day.” The foundation had three main priorities, in order: the musical, the Pitchfork Steak Fondue buffet attraction and the Bully Pulpit Golf Course.
Though the musical’s schedule changed, Fisk said there are only a couple fewer shows than in a normal season. Show capacity sits between 50% and 54% due to COVID-19 measures, and Fisk said most Saturdays are sold at or close to capacity. Special shows such as Kids Night on Wednesdays and Sundays enjoy similar popularity.
“The Medora Musical’s one of the only theatre operations in the country that’s open … and that’s something to be proud of,” Fisk said.
If the Medora Musical were not open, “it would have an impact on the community, a negative impact,” said former mayor Doug Ellison, owner of Amble Inn and Western Edge Books, Artwork and Music, and a current member of the city council.
Golf has seen a 2% increase in business this year, Fisk said, but overall business for the foundation has seen a 40-50% decrease. The sector to take the largest hit has been lodging at 25%, he said, likely because people are taking shorter day trips to minimize outside contact.
One of the major differences from a regular season is that travellers are making shorter-term decisions, Fisk said, which makes it hard to predict what the rest of the season might hold.
However, business has been steadily picking up as the season goes on, Fisk said -- so much so that the foundation was able to hire 30 more employees to begin work in mid-August in the hospitality sector.
The upward growth of visitation as the summer wears on is typical, Fisk said, but he “can’t say it’s growing faster towards the end of the year than in a normal season.”
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora is at the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which reopened for recreational use May 9 after closing due to pandemic concerns on April 15. Some facilities and all campgrounds remained closed.
Now in the full bloom of the summer season, the park is still closed to overnight campers due to coronavirus-related delays in bathroom and facility upgrades that were scheduled before the pandemic took hold, according to Chief Ranger Grant Geis.
The contractor the park hired from South Dakota to do the work was “hit really hard” by the pandemic, he said. There is still no estimated date on when campgrounds will reopen.
Nevertheless, Geis said that since reopening, he has felt the park getting back into the swing of things.
“A normal weekend in Medora is what things kind of look like right now,” he said.
However, data from the National Park Service shows overall recreational visits are substantially down.
The park saw 60,544 recreational visitors in July 2020, compared to 149,425 in July 2019, a 60% drop. The park saw 93,365 visitors in June 2020, compared to 134,590 in June 2019, a 31% drop.
Geis said some visitors have told him they had planned to visit a different park but came to Theodore Roosevelt when their intended destination was no longer an option.
Though most national parks have now reopened in some capacity, many closed in mid- to late March, earlier than Theodore Roosevelt, and some took longer to reopen in May and June.
From what he’s seen, Ellison estimates that the ratio of North Dakotans to out-of-staters this year in his businesses is about 50-50, or “very similar to other years.”
Fisk said the foundation’s statistics from previous years show that on average, about 60% of visitors to the Medora Musical are from North Dakota. The foundation does not have data yet on the geographical breakdown of this year’s tourists.
Killian, who works full time at the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, said she has seen a big change in the demographics of visitors this summer.
“Our own data at the Chateau, we had expected to have mostly in-state visitors this year and it is exactly the opposite,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot of out-of-staters. Now, North Dakotans are coming to see us, but it’s that Minnesota and Montana crowd that particularly keep coming through our doors.”
Killian said the chamber has been focusing on upcoming events to bolster out-of-season visitation, when perhaps the pandemic will have ebbed. On Nov. 8, the chamber will host its annual Hunter’s Feed, which she said primarily attracts North Dakotans, and on Dec. 8, it will celebrate its 25th annual Cowboy Christmas.
“We don’t close in the winter, so we want you to know that even with a pandemic, many of our businesses will be open year-round,” she said. “So if North Dakotans want to wait until the tourists (thin) out and then come see us, we are here with open arms waiting for you.”
Diane Newberry, The Associated Press