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New York's Memorial Day Crowds Are Sparse, Despite Lifted Restrictions

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Memorial Day weekend normally marks a kind of awakening for resort towns and tourist destinations across the country. It is the start of summer, a time when mom and pop businesses open to waves of tourists. The pandemic changed all that. NPR's Brian Mann traveled to Lake George in upstate New York.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It is a ridiculously beautiful early summer day, but there's a tiny crowd here. I mean, normally, this would be just packed. And this year, because of COVID-19, everything's different.

GINA MINTZER: This would be mobbed. You'd see a hundred boats on the lake already. You'd hear the sound of the calliope music of the Lake George Steamboat Company. Nothing.

MANN: Gina Mintzer heads the tourism program for Lake George, cupped in a fold of New York's Adirondack Mountains. She says merchants are worried about basic economic survival.

MINTZER: The hope is that our businesses can sustain themselves with what business we may be able to have here. Is that sustainable for some restaurants? No.

MANN: Like every other state in the country, New York has opened up a little bit, but there are still restrictions and reminders of the pandemic everywhere.

MINTZER: Have you or anyone in the facility been in contact with or tested positive? Have you experienced symptoms?

MANN: This white sand beach would normally be overrun with sunbathers, but park rangers are screening visitors, limiting entrance to 50% capacity, enforcing social distancing rules. Karen and Don Buckley (ph) have come from Long Island to celebrate their wedding anniversary and say they felt safe making the trip.

KAREN BUCKLEY: Oh, yeah. No problem.

DON BUCKLEY: Very safe.

MANN: Both have masks. That's required. But they say they're growing impatient with all the rules and warnings.

K BUCKLEY: I mean, I think we're at, like, just be responsible for yourself, and let's get things rolling again.

MANN: I hear this a lot from tourists hungry for normal life, a taste of summer and fun. But behind the scenes, people here take the pandemic seriously.

RODNEY HOLTON: Basically, you just wave over the wand. It goes over the area for about 20 seconds.

MANN: Rodney Holton (ph) wears a white hazmat suit. He's been hired by a local hotel to go room by room with powerful ultraviolet lights that kill bacteria and viruses. Sam Luciano (ph), who runs the hotel, says this expense is unavoidable for hospitality businesses operating during a pandemic.

SAM LUCIANO: It's thousands and thousands of dollars. There was no turning back. If we don't go to this level, there is no future. You have to ensure the safety of the guests. You have to ensure the safety of the staff. So we had to do it.

MANN: But a lot of businesses here already ran on such narrow margins even before the pandemic, and these kind of measures are just unaffordable, especially when there are far fewer customers. Many have stayed closed. Tony Hall is publisher of the Lake George Mirror, a society newspaper published every summer since 1880.

TONY HALL: Basic governmental services depend upon a healthy tourism economy. We're funding social services. We're funding fire departments.

MANN: Hall also worries about the cultural life of Lake George as visitors and seasonal residents stay away.

HALL: Because there really are two separate communities - a year-round community and one that comes into being with Memorial Day. And we just won't see these people, and we won't have that community.

MANN: Another blow to this resort area - state officials say it's still unsafe for kids to go to camp, which means another summer ritual still on hold.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Lake George, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.