Task force safety strategies set the stage as Mackinac Island prepares for its annual tourist infusion.

Part of the fun of a Mackinac Island vacation is the liveliness. Visitors on this Northern Michigan island without cars wander Main Street’s boutiques and fudge shops amid bicycles whizzing past, the clip-clopping of horse-drawn carriages and other visitors—some 1.1 million in the course of a season, upwards of 10,000 on a typical summer day.

A 3.8-square-mile island by its very nature makes social distancing a challenge, and that’s compounded when that island is named a Conde Nast “best island to visit,” a “top 10 place to visit in summer” and one of the “eight most charming getaways in the world.”

mackinac island ghost tour

Photo by Sara Wright

To safely host the island’s regular influx of guests has been the mission of a new Mackinac Island Public Health Task Force that has been meeting for several weeks, bringing together key tourism providers with the mayor, city council, police and emergency services representatives, physicians and others to address challenges posed by COVID-19.

As the island prepares for a May 29 soft opening, committee members say they’re taking every possible precaution to keep residents and visitors safe while still offering the quintessential Mackinac experience. Visitors to the island will be able to take a ferry over, rent a bike, go out to eat and shop, but no overnight lodging will be available during the soft opening.

“It’s utterly important for us as a business community, on and off the island, that we do everything in our power to follow the protocols we’re setting up right now,” says Chris Shepler, third-generation president of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry Service. “You have no room for a mistake.”

Shepler hopes visitors will be immediately reassured as they wait in marked, distanced lines and watch crews disinfect the ferries between runs with a new set of hydrostatic sprayers. Other precautions will be in place, too, as valet parking is eliminated and numbers are limited inside baggage pick-up buildings with offered gloves and sanitizers. The company is still discussing ways to allow for some distancing on board, including “keeping every piece of equipment on the lake,” he says.

On the island, businesses will follow the task force protocols. In addition to making hand sanitizer available throughout the downtown area, the city will provide each business with A-frame signs designed to encourage mask-wearing, hand washing and social distancing, says Tim Hygh, executive director of the Mackinac Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. The tourism bureau will also provide in-window signs letting visitors know the maximum occupancy for each downtown business. Plexiglass will often divide guests and staff in spots like hotel front desks and even horse-drawn tour carriages.

Hygh says this will all be done by June 19, the Ceremonial Grand Opening weekend. The city is expected to announce more precautions soon.

“At this particular time, I don’t think you’re going to see entertainment at night until the rules change,” he says. “Lobbies are going to look different in most establishments; there will be fewer pieces of furniture to encourage social distancing, and I think you’re going to see as many touch-less check-in procedures as technology will allow.”

Popular Fort Mackinac and the smaller sites operated by Mackinac State Historic Parks will open to the public pretty much as usual, but with a later grand opening date of June 19. Those familiar with the regimented operation of some fort experiences should be prepared to be flexible, though. Musket firings generally done by soldiers in pairs will be done solo. Cannon booms will be more frequent with extra firings added as needed so guests won’t need to crowd onto firing platforms, says Dominick Miller, marketing manager of Mackinac State Historic Parks.

While large group activities planned for the 125th birthday of the island as a Michigan state park had to be canceled, the park will still host new outdoor movies at the fort on Tuesday nights. They’ll be encouraging treks among the island’s hiking and cycling trails and guiding excursions along new botanical and Native American cultural history trails.

“A lot of people come to the island and stay in the downtown area where the food and the fudge are, but there’s so much within the park to go explore,” Miller says. “You can go up a couple of hills and have a huge expanse with no one around you.”

Mackinac Island Restaurant

Most of the island’s inns, hotels and lodges have delayed their opening dates (the Grand Hotel to June 21 and Mission Point Resort to June 25, for example) to develop cleaning and other protocols, as well as additional and creative options for outside dining.

The Inn at Stonecliffe on the island’s West Bluff is adding a beer garden with food trucks—all with a stunning view of the Mackinac Bridge. Mission Point is offering more packaged picnics to go and a sure-to-be-popular bottling of its two most popular cocktails—a lavender lemonade and blueberry mojito—so they can be delivered to rooms, enjoyed on a new raised terrace or sipped on the wide lawn peppered with Adirondack chairs.

“Obviously, safety and cleanliness are paramount for guests and also for employees and residents of the island as well,” says Liz Ware, vice president of sales and marketing at Mission Point. To that end, the resort is following a Mission Point CARES Cleanliness Plan based on American Hotel and Lodging Association protocols as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and other state and national hospitality organizations.

But keeping the experience fun is key, too. On opening weekend, the resort will loan out a new branded fleet made by Detroit Bikes (and other rentals) for free—one way to encourage exploration on lesser-traveled island trails. And, like other businesses on the island, they’re ready to switch gears as safety protocols demand, Ware says.

“We have plans A, B, C, D, E and F. When anything new comes out, we can adjust quickly.”

On May 29, ferries will start running on a regular but reduced schedule. For more scheduling information, click here. For the most current island information, including lodging property openings, visit mackinacisland.org/2020-season-updates.

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner