Champlain Islands

Vt. Island Businesses Adapting to Salvage Summer Season

Businesses in the Champlain Islands are seeing considerable impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic

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In tourism-dependent Vermont, businesses in the retail, lodging, and dining sectors say they are feeling impacts of the COVID-19 crisis every day.

"There's not the traffic that we normally have," said Sherri Potvin, who heads the Lake Champlain Islands Economic Development Corporation.

The Champlain Islands have a way of never feeling crowded, even in normal summers when the population of the five towns in Grand Isle County swells beyond their 7,000 or so residents--about doubling in most summers, Potvin said.

This year is particularly quiet, Potvin noted, telling NECN that business owners have really had to adapt quickly to salvage the always-short summer season.

"With the closures that were in place from the beginning of the season, it just makes the season that much shorter," Potvin said.

Bob Camp at Hero's Welcome in North Hero is really missing his Canadian customers, he said. The border is still closed to non-essential travel.

"I've been a retailer 60 years, and it's been the most unusual year we've ever faced," Camp said.

New bright spots are emerging at the store, though, Camp said, from people who are spending a lot more time at home and want to spruce it up and enjoy it--with purchases like hammocks or lawn games.

"We probably quadrupled our puzzle sales this year," Camp observed.

Down the road at the North Hero House, Governor Phil Scott's orders during the COVID-19 crisis limit how many guests can stay and where they can come from--meaning room occupancy is down sharply.

Owner Walt Blasberg said most Julys see his occupancy numbers at around 90%, but lately, they have been more like 30-35%.

However, between the federal paycheck protection program, a state-administered grant, and a spike in interest in outdoor dining and cocktails, Blasberg said the destination that survived World Wars I and II, as well as earlier pandemics, said it'll weather this latest economic storm, too.

"Financially, it's not been great, for sure," Blasberg said of the North Hero House's receipts. "But the bright spot has been the outdoor dining for us because we have water on three sides and that's where people want to be."

Congressman Peter Welch met with Champlain Islanders about their businesses Friday and vowed to work to deliver more federal recovery aid to states.

"We can't tap the brakes now," Welch told the businesspeople he met with in his virtual roundtable discussion, describing what he sees as a need to work for more relief money. "So that we can get to the other side and you can go back to business as normal."

In the meantime, staycationers like retiree Ron Tofani, who's planning road trips around Vermont this summer, will look for mom and pop operations that could use a boost.

"We love it up here," Tofani said of the Champlain Islands. "We support Vermont businesses, and always will, even though it may cost us a little more money than going to a Walmart or something. In this economy, these places are really needing the help."

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