Washed Away: Beach erosion and a pandemic's effect on tourism

Washed Away: Beach erosion and a pandemic’s effect on tourism

SAINT JOSEPH, Mich. --- Record-high lake levels are washing away the shorelines at some Michiana beaches.

Berrien County hit especially hard by shoreline erosion but is that stopping tourists from heading out for a weekend getaway at Lake Michigan?

Officials say not yet.

“We have noticed increasing lake levels for the last several years,” Rob Cleveland said, who’s a part of the Summer Tourism Coalition.

The coalition was formed in early March and is made up of local leaders working to combat shoreline erosion before it can affect tourism. So far, Cleveland says the lack of a beach isn’t stopping folks from visiting.

Data from the state shows Berrien County steadily seeing an influx of tourists spending their cash at the shore. In 2018, the county saw over $406 million from tourism. 

“We’ve been really excited in anticipation of the summer months because we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people coming to the community.”

Dangerous waves are still threatening homes, businesses, and beaches along the shoreline.

The overarching worry is that in the near future there won’t be much shoreline left for locals and tourists to spread out on Silver Beach.  But right now, the threat of erosion is nothing compared to the threat of economic extinction from a worldwide pandemic.

Business owners along the shore are compelled to get creative to stay afloat with fewer tourists visiting their shops.

"If you spend $20, you’re eligible to receive a free roll of toilet paper,” Anne Reitz explained, the owner of Caffe Tosi in Saint Joseph.

The shop looks a lot different these days. Instead of customers sitting at the tables, there’s Caffe Tosi merchandise on display that’s for sale alongside masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.

“Forget the erosion! We’ve moved on from that!” Reitz said. “The masks, the gloves, the sanitizer; It’s been a challenge. We’ve all had to adjust so it’s been hard for everyone.”

Tourism is the third-largest industry in Southwest Michigan. For many businesses, it’s something they rely on every summer.

“It’s 50/50. Tourism is a big part of our clientele but our locals are our bread and butter,” Reitz said.

Just a block up the street from Caffe Tosi sits 221 Main. The restaurant has been closed for the last two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s summer. Your summer business is a lot of tourism,” Robert Montgomery said, the owner and general manager at 221 Main. “The coronavirus concerns might be more impactful than beach erosion.”

Montgomery is already preparing for how to keep customers safe and socially distanced from each other come time to reopen.

“One of the nice advantages that we have is that we are such large building that we can spread things out,” Montgomery said. “We’re just kind of waiting for the go-ahead from the governor to get back on track and get back open for business.”

When they do reopen, things are going to look a lot different.

 “We’re going to have hand sanitizing stations, new protocol as far as cleaning tables, salt and pepper shakers are going to be taken out!” Montgomery explained.

In a community where weathering the storm is the norm, these businesses owners remain optimistic

“I think tourists will seek comfort in the beach. No matter how much erosion there is,” Reitz said.

“The phrase that you keep hearing is ‘the new normal.’ I’d like to call it the normal for now,” Montgomery said. “I think this is something we are dealing with for the time being but eventually, I think we’ll get back to where we were.”

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