LAKE GEORGE — Amid intermittent warm weather and widespread cabin fever, day trippers and vacationers have begun to make their way to Lake George, where the seasonal hospitality community wants their business but is far from ready for it.
Some hotels and RV parks are open, some are not. Restaurants serve only takeout food, most retailers are closed altogether. Golf courses opened, closed and opened again. Marinas are open, tour boats aren’t operating. Walking paths are open and getting use, beaches are closed and getting use anyway.
“We know that as soon as the weather gets warm, people are going to migrate to places like Lake George,” said Fred Blais, mayor of the village since 1971. “We did see a great influx of mostly day trippers now that the weather is getting warmer.
“What surprises me is the number of people who are coming and nothing’s open!
“It hasn’t created any problems that we know of, healthwise,” he continued. People have been keeping an appropriate distance from one another, for the most part, but not all are taking other health precautions.
“Very few, we’re finding, are wearing masks, so we put up signs across the village,” Blais said.
He said there has been criticism about the village not doing more to enforce the guidelines on wearing masks and maintaining social distance, but added it would be nearly impossible. The village and nearby environs have about 5,000 full-time residents, he explained. On a perfect weekend summer day, 50,000 people might pass through the village, many of them hailing from the epicenter of the pandemic in America, the greater New York City metropolitan region.
“I know the fear of our governor, of most of our local people, is that the influx will bring the virus,” Blais said.
He hopes the visitors will follow the COVID-19 safety rules that should be ingrained in everybody by now, and which are inscribed on dozens of signs around the village: Wear a mask and stay six feet apart.
“I think we’re hoping for the best and afraid of what might happen.”
LOOKING FOR A BALANCE
The Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce is torn between wishing visitors were here, not wanting to encourage them to come and promoting safe behavior by those who do come.
Two weekends ago the village was relatively crowded for late April, with many of the visitors clearly from out of the area, said Gina Mintzer, executive director of the chamber. Some were wearing masks and some were practicing social distancing. Others were not.
“We’re all talking about how we’re going to get that message out,” she said.
Even as she watched people go about without masks, Mintzer also recalled watching the new personal dynamics play out among people near one of the beaches, where people weren’t even supposed to be.
“I was there with a book,” she said. “There were people on benches that were together and people would walk around them. That part was interesting to watch.”
Business owners need to strike a difficult balance between preserving their 12-week season and protecting staff, guests and the community while complying with frequently changing and sometimes vague directives from the state.
“We are following the governor’s guidelines and the county’s,” Mintzer said.
ROLLING INTO TOWN
RV parks are one of those industry sectors where business owners are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to do under state regulations that give no specific guidance. One interpretation is that an RV park is an accommodation, a place for the large motorhomes or trailers and their owners to park and live for the season. Another interpretation is that they are attractions that encourage people to drive across large swaths of the state or nation, staying in a different place each night and potentially spreading germs along the way.
Employees at Alpine Lake RV Resort in Corinth confirmed last week that they are open but declined to discuss their decision with The Gazette.
David King, president and CEO of Lake George RV Park, said his facility mostly serves transient travelers stopping for a night or two, and he doesn’t think it qualifies as an accommodation. He has moved his opening date from May 8 to May 18 to June 1. And June 1 is only tentative at this point.
“We’re trying to leave hope in the season, not just for us but for our guests,” King said. On Monday, he gave up on Memorial Day weekend and informed 250 people with reservations the park wouldn’t be open.
That hurt. And it seems unfair.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of activity in campgrounds and hotels on Memorial Day,” King said. “I’m not sure how it’s all going to play out.”
He’s still hoping to be open for a good eight to 10 weeks of summer, but needs some certainty about that before he can make it happen.
“We’re almost at that teetering point now as an industry,” he said.
He said his RV park is ideally suited for social distancing: the 400 parking sites are 30 or more feet apart and there are no tent sites.
“Everyone who stays with us has their own restroom facilities, shower facilities,” King said. “From our perspective, we’re in a pretty good position to alter our rules and guidelines, if we were allowed to reopen.”
ROOM AT THE INN
Frank Dittrich is open for business but with some trepidation. He and his wife, Kathleen, own Tea Island and co-own three other Lake George resorts. Because they offer accommodations, they are “essential” and exempt from the shutdown. They are taking reservations but this is not a normal windup to the busy season.
“You can’t say ‘normal’ anywhere,” Dittrich said. “We need new grammar. We have to figure out how to operate.”
His hope is that the industry can open for the season with full safety measures and show state officials that it is safe and doesn’t have to be shut down.
“I think there’s general acknowledgement that if you open the door and have to close it again, that’s the end of the year,” Dittrich said.
Many of the accommodations in the Lake George area have external room entrances, limiting guest density indoors. And since demand is likely to be down, managers may be able to leave every other room empty, Dittrich said.
Full infection-control options need to be employed, he said, given that so many guests are from New York City, Long Island and northern New Jersey.
“A lot of properties use hospital-grade cleaning products now.”
Dittrich said he’s often 100-percent booked in July and August but doesn’t expect that this year.
“If we can get into the 80 percent range that would be good,” he said.
HUNGER FOR NORMALCY
The Adirondack Pub and Brewery sits just down Canada Street from the waterfront and squarely within the hardest-hit industry in the state — food services.
Owner John Carr said his distributor, DeCresente, has been working hard to get his products on retail shelves but that doesn’t replace the taproom that’s now shut down. It accounts for two-thirds of his business and he has no idea when he will be able to reopen it.
“I feel like the goalpost keeps getting moved on us,” he said. “We all sat around and waiting for the curve to flatten. We didn’t even have a curve up here. I’m hoping they can look at this [area] different.”
Carr said there is room in his 7,000-square-foot dining area to maintain social distancing.
“I’ve got a 250-seat restaurant — could I have 50 seats available?”
That would spread dining parties not six feet apart but 10 feet apart.
“Now I can pay the cook to do the to-go orders. The economics start to get a little better,” Carr said.
While pointing out that Warren County has been impacted only lightly by the pandemic, aside from clusters of deaths in nursing homes, he also recognizes that Lake George is a popular destination for New York City-area residents and a straight shot up the Northway.
His own establishment is just a mile from Exit 21, and masks wouldn’t work there — it’s impossible to sip an IPA through an N95 respirator.
Social pressure to behave safely would make a difference, Carr said, or perhaps patrons could have their temperature taken on the way in.
“I think most restaurateurs would be happy with that,” Carr said.
He believes that the patrons will return whenever Lake George village businesses reopen, regardless of what the new normal for dining out may be.
“I think there’s a lot of people that have the worst case of cabin fever they’ve ever had,” Carr said.
Most people just want to get out, and most are being very careful about it, he said.
“I think those are encouraging signs.”