New York's beloved summer destinations — places like Lake George, Old Forge, Niagara Falls — are preparing for a peak season unlike any other
For Katie Boesche and Chip Kiefer, owning and running Souvenir Village is a dream.
The gift shop is a staple on the main drag in the Adirondack hamlet of Old Forge. With a wooden raccoon the size of a middle schooler standing outside the front entrance, it’s impossible for visitors to pass by without at least peeking in the windows.
Inside, it’s full of personalized trinkets, “Old Forge” clothing, quintessential Adirondack camp decor and every kind of candy imaginable — the kind of store that people wander into hoping to get lost inside.
Souvenir Village has been in Kiefer’s family since 1971, and he and Boesche bought it from his parents in 2004. Next year, they’ll celebrate 50 years in business.
“We think we are the luckiest people in the world,” Kiefer said. “We feel like we’re very fortunate to live where an awful lot of people come to vacation.”
But since mid-March, Souvenir Village has been closed.
Boxes are stacked on the floor, displays of personalized keychains and magnets haven’t been restocked, and the couple’s border collie, Zona, is desperately missing all the attention from visitors who used to wander in.
As New York starts to gradually reopen after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses March 20, Kiefer said he and his wife are concerned about how they’ll make the necessary changes to their store to keep it afloat.
They are not alone.
Destination towns and villages across the state are struggling to navigate the reopening as New Yorkers battle both the largest number of coronavirus cases in the country and a collective urge to resume their normal lives.
Many of these areas — places like Old Forge, Lake George, Alexandria Bay — desperately need an influx of visitors to keep local businesses going.
A recent trip by the USA TODAY Network New York to many of the upstate tourism spots found COVID-19 has created uncertainty and anxiousness over what the summer will be, starting now with Memorial Day weekend.
In many upstate tourism areas, the true summer season doesn’t pick up until late June, early July. So some seasonal attractions, like Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge, weren’t even planning to open until June anyway.
But still, restaurants and bars that would normally be open year-round have paper signs taped up to the front door announcing closures.
Visitor centers are shuttered. Typically busy streets now have ample parking, and people out walking their dogs or strolling with a friend along bucolic lakefronts are wearing masks.
Locals worry about the potential of a summer lost to the virus. Tourism is a $100 billion a year industry in New York, and its fourth largest employer.
Corey Fram, director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, said travelers this summer will undoubtedly have a different experience.
They can expect to start wearing masks in hotel lobbies, registering in advance to go on a boat tour or to a theme park, or grabbing dinner to go rather than eating inside a restaurant.
The changes might be cumbersome and jarring, but they also are vital, Fram said.
“I know that we need visitors to this area to keep us all going,” Fram said. “But I know we have a greater calling at (this) moment, and that’s to keep everybody safe...We’re writing the rulebook as we go.”
A quiet start to the busiest season
In mid-March when restrictions tightened, schools were shut down, events were canceled and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “NYS’ on PAUSE’ order went into effect, destination towns almost immediately shut down any advertising campaigns.
Social media campaigns were dropped, TV commercials pulled and print ads were stopped.
But still, second homeowners — and sometimes their friends, neighbors and relatives — disregarded the state’s advisories and traveled to smaller, more remote towns to ride out the pandemic, which has killed more than 23,000 New Yorkers, by far the most in the nation.
For about a month, people like Mike Farmer, publicity director for the Town of Webb and the hamlet of Old Forge, tried to get people not to come.
With a year-round population of about 2,000, Old Forge typically sees a surge of about 20,000 people in the peak summer months, Farmer said. But the resources other communities have to test for COVID-19 simply do not exist anywhere close by.
Testing is limited or even unavailable in small upstate resort towns, and healthcare resources like hospitals or urgent care centers are rarely close by, even as the areas have had among the fewest number of cases and deaths in New York.
“Healthcare for anything, really, is an hour away in Utica,” Farmer said. “We have no testing...That’s scary stuff.”
To the relief of those in these summer destinations, the number of cases in regions outside of the greater New York City area has been minuscule in comparison.
So in the last few weeks, the message to tourists has changed. The region May 15 started the first of four phases toward reopening, a process that will stretch out over the next month at the control of the state.
Recently, Old Forge put virtual tour videos on the website and on social media, encouraging people to remember the Adirondacks, but to still stay at home until the time is right to visit.
And with many restaurants and businesses still closed or operating in a lesser capacity, Farmer is hopeful the lack of attractions will ultimately prevent any sort of outbreak in the area.
“I am cautiously optimistic and concerned,” Farmer said. “It might work in our favor that reduced services might shield us from a crushing influx of people — some people might not come.”
At Souvenir Village in Old Forge, the owners still need to install Plexiglass shields at the cash register, and they’re planning to move as many items as they can outdoors.
But things like controlling the flow of visitors inside the store, ensuring social distancing and making sure everyone has a mask is a huge shift for them.
“Many of us are not quite ready to open up, physically, but I think emotionally everybody’s ready to be back to normal,” Kiefer said.
“And that’s going to be a challenge in itself for us. We don’t know what new normal is going to be.”
Keeping things clean, safe and six feet apart
In Lake George, the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center’s primary market is people who live in the greater New York City area — the nation’s hardest-hit area for coronavirus.
Sam Luciano, president of the board that oversees the hotel, said the hotel called nursing homes and hospitals to see what the highest standard was for combating the coronavirus.
The hotel invested more than $20,000 in UV-C light machines to clean their rooms, lobby and other shared spaces.
They vary in size — some are large enough to clean a 1,200-square-foot room, and others are small handheld wands that can be used to disinfect things like elevator buttons and door handles.
It also started training for every employee on how the hotel is keeping both workers and guests safe.
Luciano is leading each training himself, which is a time-consuming endeavor given the restrictions on gatherings — each training can only accommodate about eight or nine employees.
The staff is also required to keep a contact tracing log during their shifts and have their temperature taken upon entry, Luciano said.
“It wasn’t just we were going to up our cleaning process or we’re gonna buy a chemical and spray around,” Luciano said.
“We knew the occupancy would be down and we knew that our revenues would be down this year, but without keeping everybody safe there was no future.”
In Alexandria Bay, Ron Thomson is going through a similar process with his own company.
Thomson, who owns Uncle Sam Boat Tours, has been busy reconfiguring the seating on his boats and ordering washable, cloth facemasks to hand out to guests who come without one.
“I just know that other areas are not as tuned into masks as we are up here,” Thomson said.
“So we’re going to get a mix of people that are going to have their masks and then for somebody that doesn’t, we can hand them one.”
One of his boats, the Alexandria Belle, previously held about 360 passengers. It was undergoing renovations during the off season before the pandemic, but now Thomson’s making additional changes to the layout to abide by social distancing guidelines.
Tables will now seat up to six people to accommodate groups, but will be spaced so that each group is at least six feet apart from any other table.
If one or two people come together, they’ll get one of those large tables to themselves, he said with a shrug.
“My big boats aren’t so big anymore,” Thomson said. “We’ll be less than 50% capacity, and then that’s in an ideal situation.”
When everyone’s using the great outdoors
With the coronavirus keeping people cooped up at home, the outdoors have been touted as a safe place to get some exercise or do a socially-distanced activity with a friend.
But with so many people heading to parks and trails, overuse and overcrowding has become a predicament in some areas.
In Bolton Landing, north of Lake George, the town closed one of its most popular hiking trails after seeing more than 30 cars parked along the road near the trailhead in early April.
The trailhead’s parking lot was designed to fit four or five vehicles, according to a post shared on Warren County’s Facebook page.
And in Redwood, just southeast of Alexandria Bay, the Indian River Lakes Conservancy is seeing the number of visitors rising, too, said Wylie Huffman, the Conservancy’s executive director.
“We’ve seen a very large uptick in trail use,” Huffman said.
“People want to get away from each other ... and I think people just have to use their good judgment and use face coverings and observe social distancing as much as possible.”
But for many of these destinations, having space for people to be together outside — whether on a trail or on a sidewalk — without encroaching on social distancing guidelines is going to come in handy in the coming months.
Standing in a nearly vacant park adjacent to Niagara Falls on a gloomy morning in early May, Destination Niagara USA’s Executive Director John Percy adjusted his mask and looked out toward the falls.
Six feet to his left stood his longtime friend Frank Strangio, a hotelier who owns two hotels in Niagara Falls.
Neither of them had ever seen the area so empty, and they lamented not being able to hug one another.
“It is eerie,” Percy said. “It is strange to come and see very few people, if none at all, in this destination when it’s May and typically we’re gearing up for probably one of the strongest weekends coming up: Memorial Day.”
This summer, he said, will be challenging. But it’s a challenge they’re very eager to take on.
“It is going to be totally different,” Percy said.
“And we will work around it and make it work for this summer, and hopefully next summer and future years are going to be back to some of the normal periods of the past.”