Pandemic vacation. Is it safe?

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Last week my wife I drove to northern Michigan for our first pandemic vacation.  Michigan, overall, has had very few COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and even fewer in northern Michigan.  Further, hospitalizations are at record lows.  This gave us confidence that we could vacation safely.  Plus, the county we live in has also become nearly virus free, so we felt confident that we wouldn’t make things worse in the north.

I know that many readers are eager to travel, but also concerned about COVID-19.  I can’t answer for you whether or not it’s safe.  Instead, you’ll find below my travel experiences as they relate to staying safe (or not).

As I write this, there is still much more unknown than known about COVID-19, but the current evidence suggests that a combination of face masks, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing are effective in slowing the spread of the virus.  Further, it seems that it is pretty safe to be outside with others without face masks, as long as you maintain social distancing or minimize interactions.  In other words, people without masks are probably safe to pass by each other while outside, but stopping for a close-in and lengthy face to face conversation could be risky.  Whether time will prove these notions right or wrong, I don’t know, but these were the understandings my wife and I had going into our vacation.

Overall Experience

Sign at the entrance to the Legs Inn restaurant.  No shirts, no shoes, no mask, no service.

We stayed in Bay Harbor, Michigan and frequently visited nearby Petoskey.  We also spent some time in the nearby towns of Charlevoix and Harbor Springs, and drove north on scenic M-119 through the Tunnel of Trees.

We found that most businesses that we visited were very good at posting signs insisting that customers wear masks inside.  Additionally, almost all employees consistently wore masks.  At restaurants and stores, the vast majority of customers complied with the rules and wore masks while inside.  Businesses were inconsistent about enforcing the rules, though.  Specifically, the Inn at Bay Harbor, where we stayed, did not do anything to make sure that customers wore masks as required.  This contrasts with two incidents in different restaurants where we did see staff enforcing the rules when people walked in without masks.

Overall, we felt about as safe in this part of northern Michigan as we feel at home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It’s very important to note that this area and this experience is not necessarily typical.  Our son separately visited a more rural part of Michigan a week ago and he reported that mask use was extremely rare there, even among business employees.  Similarly, Ben from One Mile at a Time, has been traveling out west and he reports that mask usage there was virtually non-existent.

What follows are our experiences broken out by type…

A safe drive

After reading Ben’s experience flying (where he reported many people skirting the mask-wearing rule), I was happy that we had planned a driving trip.  Normally we would have stopped for lunch on the four hour drive north.  Instead, we ate an early lunch at home before setting out.  We stopped twice on the way, once for gas and once at a rest stop for a bathroom break.

Our return drive at the end of the week was similar.  We picked up take-out sandwiches from a local restaurant and stopped once for gas and once at a rest stop.

Pumping gas

It’s great that most gas stations are setup so that you can fill up your tank without going inside.  Filling up the tank was a non-event.  I was careful to use hand sanitizer afterwards.  Actually, I got into that habit a couple of years ago, so there was really nothing new here at all.

Rest stop

We wore our masks into the rest stop bathrooms.  Not everyone else did though.  Still, we were in and out quickly and the bathrooms weren’t crowded, so we felt safe enough.

Resort

We stayed 5 nights at the Inn at Bay Harbor.  We’ve been there many times in the past.  It’s a nice resort in a fantastic location.  Plus, it’s a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel.  Instead of paying over $400 per night, we paid 35,000 points per night and got the fifth night free.  Plus, since I have high level Marriott elite status, we were offered a welcome gift choice: 1,000 points for the stay or breakfast for two every day.  Obviously we took the breakfast.

The resort was nearly full.  We overheard a staff member saying that they were at something like 90% capacity.  This is very unusual this early in the summer, but people are clearly anxious to get away!  I think this bodes well for the domestic travel industry.

The resort’s website said all of the right things about how they were handling the pandemic.  They were supposedly checking staff members’ health daily.  They implemented extra cleaning procedures.  They mandated mask usage indoors for both staff and guests (when not in your own room).  And so on.  In reality, they did nothing to enforce the mask requirement and so probably about a third of the guests wandered around without them.  The two places where this was most concerning to me was in the elevators and at the breakfast buffet.

Resort elevators

The resort has two very small elevators for guests.  We usually opted to take the stairs to and from our second flour room, but when checking in and out, the elevators were helpful for moving our bags.  Once, when faced with riding the elevator with an unmasked guest, we chose to wait for the next one.  This was a very minor inconvenience thanks to the stairs-option, but I could see it being a big problem in a high-rise hotel.

Buffet

At breakfast we were surprised to see that the hotel was still offering a buffet.  Their website had explicitly stated that they had moved to menu service.  Instead, we found the usual: the default option is the buffet, but you can always ask for a menu and order from that instead.  Those with free breakfasts can order up to $23 per person off the menu.  Fortunately, they don’t appear to charge at all for coffee or juice, so the $23 budget is plenty to get both a main and a side.

The breakfast buffet was setup like usual with an omelette station and a long row of other options.  Unlike before, there were now plexiglass barriers and staff ready to give guests whatever food they request.  Quite a few guests disregarded signs and entered the buffet area without masks.  Sometimes the area would get crowded and it was difficult to maintain social distancing.  One particularly loud maskless guy even decided it was a good idea to lean between the partitions to point out what he wanted.  We never saw any staff members try to enforce the mask requirement.

My wife and I ultimately decided that the safest breakfast option was to sit outside and order off the menu.  Even though I prefer the resort’s buffet options over their menu options, this proved to be a much nicer and less stressful way to start each day.

Eating out

The restaurant and wine-bar named Pour in Petoskey has incredibly good food, but room for only one group to sit outside. The food is so good that we ate there twice, inside, despite preferring in general to eat outdoors.

Given the guidance that says to wear masks indoors, eating at restaurants poses a bit of a dilemma.  The current rule in Michigan is to wear face masks when moving about the restaurant but it’s OK to remove masks when seated.  Restaurants are also supposed to set up all tables to ensure a minimum of 6 feet of separation between guests.  During this trip, we ate out indoors at three different restaurants.  Two separated guests very well, the third did not.

Eating outside in Charlevoix. We bought crêpes at “That French Place”.

We ultimately decided that we felt safer eating outdoors.  At some restaurants we got food to-go and found places to eat outside.  Some had their own outdoor seating. The Legs Inn had the best outdoor setup of any of the places we visited:

Legs Inn restaurant offers plenty of outdoor seating and plenty of room between tables.

Once, we picked up food curb-side at a pizza place and brought it back to the resort to eat on our balcony.  The view wasn’t bad:

Inn at Bay Harbor sunset view from bedroom balcony

We were very lucky weather-wise and so eating outside was never a problem.

Activities

We spent our time happily walking, hiking, biking, and relaxing outdoors.  We never felt the least bit unsafe…

Michigan Beach Park, Charlevoix
Charlevoix City Marina
Biking Petoskey to Harbor Springs and back.
Bear River Trail, Petoskey
Relaxing on our balcony at the Inn at Bay Harbor
People were pretty good about keeping social distanced at the pool at the Inn at Bay Harbor

Bottom Line

By visiting an area with very low COVID-19 exposure, and by minimizing our time indoors except in our own hotel room, and by wearing masks when we were indoors, we almost always felt safe during this trip.  As a result, we were able to fully enjoy this terrific vacation.

I can’t tell you whether traveling now is right for you.  That’s a very personal decision.  But if you’re trying to decide, hopefully my trip report will help a little to get an idea of what you might face.  Keep in mind, though, that we happened to visit an area where people and businesses on the whole proved to be very good at following current best practices.  You are likely to find extremely different compliance rates in other towns both within Michigan and across the country.

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GringoLoco
Guest
GringoLoco

Thanks for a trip report without all the anxiety laden OMG someone without a mask my panties are twisted in a bunch of “some” in this space.

One can get busy living again or hide in the basement waiting FOREVER for the vaccine.

Glad you had a good time.

Ken
Guest
Ken

Your comment sounds like a non believer and the reason I’m not traveling

Akuma
Guest
Akuma

At least his user name is accurate. Great article. For me, the biggest concern in taking my family to a similar resort property would be recirculated air throughout the hotel, and more vitally…within the guest quarters where obviously no one would be wearing masks. I could get behind the idea of staying in a casita-style property or even villas where you only share the building with a handful of other guests, however a property like this and especially a high-rise property like you referenced just seems like too much risk with recirculated air and the typically mediocre air filtration systems at most properties. I can only think of a handful of times we’ve stayed at a hotel where the door into our room didn’t have at least a half inch gap under it, and often times actually had air blowing into our room from the AC in the hallways (to say nothing of the shared air ducts between hotels rooms).

While it seems like a calculated risk to travel based on rates of infection in the area, the whole premise of travel typically implies travel TO a new area of which you are not an inhabitant. As such, it seems like a hotel would not at all be representative of the infections rates in the local region (except for maybe the hotel/restaurant employees assuming they were fortunate enough to live locally). I live in Anaheim with a relatively low infection rate, however the hotels near Disneyland (especially when it opens next month) might as well be in another country. Plus the idea of sharing hallways/indoor spaces with folks from who knows where (roughly half of US states have increasing infection rates currently) and not wearing masks like Mr. Loco, plus potentially having to share an elevator with them…doesn’t really sound like a vacation to me. Unfortunately the more Mr. Locos there are out and about (and there are a TON), the more likely infection rates keep increasing, which only means low risk travel is even farther away.

Cora
Guest
Cora

Hey Greg, Cora here. I really appreciate this article. As you may recall, Bruce and I have a chalet in Harbor Springs, so it was interesting to read about mask compliance in that area. (Glad to see Legs Inn requires masks–it’s one of our favorite places!) We’ve eaten at that crepe place in Charlevoix–while they’re good, the absolute best crepes up there can be found at a tiny crepe stand in Good Hart (along the tunnel of trees)! We will be heading up to our chalet for the 4th of July holiday, so it’s good to know what to expect up there.

We headed to Alpena this weekend for a family funeral, and it was interesting to see the amount of mask compliance everywhere we stopped. In our area (Southfield), mask compliance is very high. I think part of it is because our area is well educated, but we also have a large African American population, who are particularly susceptible to COVID; I find they are more likely to wear masks than others.

We normally stop at a gas station in Standish on our way up to use the restroom, but we figured the rest stops would be safer during these COVID times. As you said, not everyone wear masks at the rest stops (we found very few did), but the rest stop bathrooms are pretty spacious, so we were able to social distance without any trouble. In Alpena, mask compliance was pretty low. We had to stop at a grocery store for a couple of things and only about half of the other shoppers wore masks. At the farmer’s market, all of the vendors wore masks, but few customers did (it’s an outside market, so a little more acceptable not to wear a mask, although we still wore ours). We stopped at a restaurant to pick up a carryout order, which we ate in the park by the Harbor; only the restaurant staff wore masks, none of the patrons did. We stopped at Birch Run to do a little shopping (only 2 stores) on our way back, and found that mask compliance was probably 75%.

Stay safe and enjoy your summer.

Andrew
Guest
Andrew

One thing that is important to consider, both for visitors and for being courteous to locals, is how much hospital availability there is for places you travel to. It’d be bad to be in a place that can’t handle an outbreak of both citizens and visitors. Seems like less of an issue in northern Michigan, but for places on relatively remote islands (e.g. the outer banks, Florida Keys, etc) an excess of visitors could be very problematic if an outbreak were to occur for the local communities , who just have very small hospitals that would quickly overrun if an outbreak were to occur.

Pam
Guest
Pam

I noticed this property isn’t under Marriott’s off-peak pricing thru July? Must admit those 50k & 70k Cat 7 & 8s are sure tempting to book.

Your getaway is so pretty. Not within driving distance for us but maybe someday! Thanks for sharing your experience.

DaveS
Guest
DaveS

Thanks for a balanced discussion. It seems that so much information is still unknown. Your third paragraph squares with my own impressions based on what I’ve read, but we get so much contradictory and unclear information from sources that should be reliable that it is frustrating. One day an official will say “X”, the next day they take it back and say “perhaps X but we don’t know”, the next day “not X but Y”, the next day “We’re not so sure about Y.” Sure “experts” (I’m really tired of that term) can have different opinions, situations on the ground change, and models are only as good as their assumptions and inputs, but I’d like to have the feeling that we are being leveled with, so that we can make good decisions. Of course there are some who don’t care, and will make bad decisions no matter what.

T. Jones
Guest
T. Jones

I can certainly understand how frustrating it is being told something one day that later changes. Even the people charged with enforcement may have unclear guidance as the understanding of what’s happening continues to unfold.
While officials may have a genuine desire to provide good and accurate information, sometimes that information might not be communicated clearly.
Being willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers is a good start. A true expert understands the importance of this.

Thatirieguy
Guest
Thatirieguy

Thanks for the story. Our family took the plunge and are some of the first visitors to St Croix right now. The flight was nearly full although announcements were made warning non mask wearers could have flying privileges revoked for a time they deem necessary. Our short layover in Miami was a mixture of masked/unmasked. Not crowded as usual but busy. We flew AA and they are not capping flights or leaving middle seats empty. I saw only one person get out of their seat and didn’t see an attendant the entire flight with the exception of flight instruction. Here in the USVI they are happy to have us here but nervous. They watched with shock as the mainlanders have opted to not where masks. They believe we are slightly insane in the states. Masks are mandatory inside public places and they tell you quickly. We saw a slightly aggressive us citizen get angry over the masks and could tell he was getting a bit political about it. There is currently 1 active case in the entire USVI and a total of 72 cases since pandemic began. We saw our short window for a June flight to a place we know with no cases. So glad as I’m hearing July flights will be packed. Currently we have beaches completely to ourselves, staying in a rental overlooking buck island and loving every second of this nerve wracking decision we made. We stayed on lockdown for 4 months, still haven’t been to a restaurant once they opened in Nashville or department stores. It takes something different for everyone to make that scary move and for us it is travel. I was safer on a 4.5 hour flight than I am eating out in Tennessee so it was an easy decision. 5 more days of not worrying about a virus down here before we head back to the madness of the 48. And gringoloco, yes, you are the visitor they are scared of down here. Wear a mask or don’t bother making a reservation.

Ricardo
Guest
Ricardo

After texting with you and knowing you were there having a good time, I decided to book the same Hotel for this past weekend to spend Fathers day with my wife and 2 teenage children in the area. Ill share my experience:
I booked using 2 35000 points credit card certificates for a room with 2 queen beds and no view to the water. The going fee for this room was $420 (plus taxes and resort fees) so this is a terrific use for those certificates. Since I am Titanium, I chatted the day before asking for an upgrade. They offered me a partial view room with 2 queen beds, or a 2 room suite (that look more like a condo, kitchen, big living room, fireplace on each room, 2 balconies) for a $100 a night fee plus breakfast for all 4 (really only 2 breakfast needed since 2 would be included with my titanium level), so that accounted for $46 a day anyways. I took the $100 upgrade (a great decision).
Upon arriving, we thought like you that the breakfast would be served as opposed to a buffet. Checking in my wife refused to have breakfast from the buffet and they immediately offered room service. The room service is not such but more like a “to go” meal that they delivered and leave in your door with to-go containers, plastic silverware, etc. They call it “contactless” room service. So it did not have the glamour of room service but it worked well for us.
To be honest, the whole area fell a little sad. Even though the hotel was sold out, I saw very few people walking in Petoskey. This area usually has the feel of the Hamptons. Boats, Marinas, restaurants, small shops, etc. I found it cold and isolated for a weekend that otherwise would have been packed with people. I have been to the area on multiple occasions over the years. Not sure if all those shops will be able to survive if this continues the way it is. Shops that sell marmalades and ice creams have no samples and no ice cream. It feels more like a catalog sale place than a usual store. Cafes had little or no indoor seating. My favorite brunch join in Traverse City (Chez Peres Patisserie Amie) was closed “until covid is over”. We ate one dinner in a place with outdoor seating on a terrace, but the tables were close to each other. Waiters were wearing masks. For lunch, we opted the picnic style. Bought some bread, cheese, crackers etc, and stopped along the way in a lake to eat them.
Casinos were opened, and I usually would go for a couple of hours, but this time it did not even cross my mind to seat on a table or a slot machine.
We needed a little change of scenery and this was a good mix of “staycation” and safety. I hope things come back to normal one day.

Christian
Guest
Christian

You mentioned the low incidence of cases in the area and I’m sure that you’re right. What would concern me is that a lot of guests would be from other places with potentially much higher infection levels.

bluecat
Guest
bluecat

I appreciate your post, and also the post from OMAAT that you linked to. We know we want to do a road trip next but are unsure if it will involve a lot of hotel stays or campsites or Airbnbs.

It’s too bad hotel chains are promising one thing (about requiring masks) and not delivering on that. There’s a good business opportunity out there if one chain wants to become known for high enforcement (at the risk of alienating a large segment of the population).

Cora
Guest
Cora

My dad does maintenance for a well-known hotel chain and says that the hotel staff wears masks the entire time they’re working–so he wears a mask 8 hours a day. He says older guests are most likely to wear masks, but younger guests (20s/30s) are much less likely to wear masks. He’s in the at-risk age group, so it annoys me that younger guests are so cavalier.

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

Cora
The younger ones are the ones getting sick not death now .I saw a chart of the avg age is 32 and moving lower. I have a one hr flt or 17 hr road trip in three weeks and I can do it 3 different ways thanks to SW. In the higher-end areas, the people are paying attention in the riot areas their not. Their infection rate is 7x higher by zip code than my modest area ..
It’s up to the traveler and is it worth it?
#stayincave

Grant
Guest
Grant

Looks like a lovely vacation to Northern Michigan. Looking forward to reading future trip reports this summer.

Laura and I are up in Lake Tahoe this week and our experience so far is very similar to yours.

SarahJohn Capagal
Guest
SarahJohn Capagal

Thanks for this article Greg. It gives us more confidence to take a long drive trip, as long as we are cautious… God Bless & Be safe everyone!

Anastasia
Guest
Anastasia

Firstly, I still can’t get over the fact that it was years of reading this blog before I realized that you live in the town I grew up in, and where my parents still live. It’s really thrilling that you’re a fellow Ann Arbor-ite.

Secondly, thank you. We’re planning a family vacation up north in July (Charlevoix, then the upper peninsula), so this has been immensely helpful. Our plan had also been to do lots of hiking and eat outdoors. Loved the photos, and if you were willing to make another post about places to go and things to see up there (especially in the time of covid) I certainly wouldn’t mind!

Aarush
Guest
Aarush

Thanks for this post! I recently booked the Inn at Bay Harbor for a weekend next month, so this information is very helpful. How was Titanium treatment in general – it seems you were upgraded to a lake view room, which looks beautiful. Did they offer a late checkout (looks like this is a resort, so no guarantee)?

I managed to find a weekend with a standard room (Quarry View, 2 Queen) available, but not for redemptions – ended up booking for ~$370/nt. Looking at the nearby Courtyard Petoskey, there’s points availability every day next month except Saturday nights, despite standard rooms being available – which might be why I was unable to book my Fri – Sun stay in Bay Harbor with points. Do you know of any ways to get around this restriction? Would love to use my free night certificates; still debating if it’s worth the cash rate (plus taxes, resort fees, ugh) if we end up stuck in a quarry view room.

NK3
Guest
NK3

Thanks for the post. A couple thoughts:

In your title, you ask is vacationing safe, while in your first few paragraphs you talk about how there is a lot unknown. You sort of reference this, but I think a lot of what you, OMAAT, etc. write about is whether you feel safe, not if you actually are safe. A lot of these safety variables are hard to quantify, but I whole-hardheartedly agree that mask wearing, physical distancing and hand sanitization are key things we should all be doing, and outdoor activities are better than inside.

I really appreciate your post because there is a fair bit of “travel shaming” going around. Everyone staying home is definitely the best way to prevent spread, but after 3 months I think it is understandable that people need a break. Trying to find a middle ground, where we can leave our house without recklessly spreading the virus should be the goal. It is not about getting back to exactly how things were, but how can we take steps (big and small) so we can do some of things we used to do.

You mentioned feeling more comfortable driving after reading OMAAT’s post, and I see many people commenting on road trips in the near future. Just a quick reminder–COVID is not the only danger out there. In non-pandemic times, the general consensus is that flying is much safer than driving. Again, difficult to quantify, but I have seen numbers of 20 to 100x safer (mile per mile). So I get concerned when people veto flying but instead take very long road trips. Again, this may feel safe because we drive every day, but is it? And as you mentioned, stopping for gas, rest stops, perhaps random hotels along the way–all potential exposures to Covid.

In the past month and a half I have taken one weekend road trip (where I stayed at hotels at my destination), and a few round trip (nonstop) flights to a condo we have. While the road trip was to an area with relatively low Covid cases, mask usage and physical distancing were almost nonexistent. I “felt” safer overall on my plane trips (where Covid protections were much more accepted/enforced), especially last month when they were mostly empty. I flew Delta in the past week–one thing I noticed is that people traveling together were not sitting in the middle seats. If it is a household contact, it is better to sit next to that person (window & middle), and leave the aisle seat open, to create more physical distance. It may not be 6 feet, but 4 feet is better than 2.

Sorry if these are random thoughts, but I really appreciate a balanced, thoughtful discussion. I notice a lot of these posts devolve into people asking “why are you traveling?” versus others who try to defend not wearing masks.

Andy Shuman
Guest
Andy Shuman

Thanks for the report, Greg, and your veranda looks like a fantastic dining room to enjoy a takeout dinner. However, this report has just convinced me once again that my mode of traveling for the next few months would be vacation rentals with outdoor or take out dining. It’s people like the ones you’ve described along with gutless proprietors who ruin it for everyone who wants to stay safe. Both I and wife have older parents to take care of and we can’t afford not to be “paranoid.”

ACinNC
Guest
ACinNC

I have traveled 3 times since lockdown including to Florida, South Carolina and a casino trip (all higher risk areas than you went). However, I frankly feel safe pretty much anywhere (I’m healthy but 62) provided I distance from people to the extent possible (not a problem I usually travel alone and prefer to be by myself), wear mask where appropriate (everyone in this casino had to wear a mask at all times for example) and wash my hands frequently plus use hand sanitizer. It is probably overkill but I also take a spray bottle of disinfectant and wipe down all surfaces in the hotel room right when I arrive. There is no housekeeping so I’m the only one in and out. Like you I prefer the stairs if I can’t get on the first floor.

Overall, IMHO, if people take reasonable precautions there is very little risk of infection. You see numbers rising but that is usually in concentrated populations and due to riskier behavior. Just don’t hang around people that are partying with crowds or otherwise inserting risk into the mix. It is all about risk/reward and I don’t hesitate to travel anywhere. Also, not being fatalistic but I have a strong immune system, eat well and exercise so odds are I would be in the 85-90% of people who have no, minor or moderate symptoms (moderate would be a week of sick at home but no hospitalization). It is all about understanding the risks, which populations are actually responsible for the rise in cases and taking reasonable precautions. However, I refuse to live (or not live in my opinion) my life worried about something like the virus to the extent it makes me stay home. I’ll roll the dice (taking reasonable precautions as stated) and if I get it I’ll take my chances on how severe it will be. Life is too short to worry about everything.

jlawrence01
Guest
jlawrence01

It is really nice to see that a person who lives in an area with many health care options vacation in an area which has a very limited number of options should he transmit COVID to the people he interacts with. I am sure that they appreciate that.

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Josh
Guest
Josh

Hey @Greg, quick question on this property maybe you know maybe you don’t. If you were to book a standard room cash rate, it says “Rate includes overnight accommodations and breakfast for two”

It doesn’t say much about that when looking at the rate details for points bookings.

Do you think it’s likely to get free breakfast here as a non-Platinum member with an awards booking?

Josh
Guest
Josh

It may??? based on a tripdavisor review from Jul 2018 where they said they used points to book during a busy time of year. The post mentioned “Take advantage of the free bikes and breakfast for 2.”

my mileage may vary, of course.