With the Belle Isle Conservancy already rushing to adapt to the new normal of the pandemic, the Belle Isle shut down caused by a rush of visitors on Michigan’s first 70-degree day added all new concerns.

DETROIT, MI—Belle Isle is a beloved destination. As the weather started to warm and Michigan shook off the cold of winter, it made sense that people would flock to the island. But that flocking caused problems, leading to the first Belle Isle shut down of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Twice over the weekend Belle Isle had to be closed because of overcrowding. That has raised concerns both on the Isle and in the governor’s office. 

Sunday afternoon at around 4:15 p.m. and again at about 5:30 p.m. Belle Isle shut down to new traffic by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) because the island exceeded capacity. The DNR was quick to nip in the bud a rumor that this was caused by a lack of social distancing, it was simply a general capacity issue. 

 “We were overwhelmed with cars,” Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, said to the Metro Times. “There was a lack of parking.”

Island Lake Recreation Area in Livingston County and Grand Haven State Park along Lake Michigan also were closed over the weekend due to crowds. 

Crowds Caused Concerns about Coronavirus’ Future

While Olson was clear that social distancing was not a problem at Belle Isle, the crowds themselves were cause for concern. Especially because last weekend represented the first test of pandemic coronavirus protections against warming weather. While Detroit parks have remained open and operational, this was the first weekend of the pandemic with clear skies and warm afternoons.

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“While we encourage everyone to stay home as much as possible, we understand that parks are playing an important role in the community’s coping with the pressures of this crisis,” 

Belle Isle Conservancy Communications Associate Mary Ogilvie told The ‘Gander. “While beaches and parks around the country have been closed, we have been fortunate enough to remain open as a respite from the confines of our homes. Let’s continue working together so we can keep doing so.”

To that end, Oglivie stressed that Belle Isle isn’t business-as-usual. Far from a vacation destination, the island is prioritizing the services of fresh air, exercise and the mental health benefits of nature in a crisis. Additionally, she reminded guests that social distancing standards of six feet are in force on the island and face masks are strongly encouraged. Lastly, because waste collection is slowed during the pandemic, the DNR is encouraging a “Carry in, carry out” policy to reduce refuse on the island. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also expressed concerns about the crowds on Belle Isle. While she acknowledged that she says it often, she reiterated in her press conference Monday that Michigan is not out of the woods. Whitmer was concerned that the plateau seen in new coronavirus cases in recent weeks has created a false sense of security that might cause a second wave of coronavirus infections. 

“We have to keep doing the work, we have to all keep doing our part.” Whitmer said of Belle Isle. “As tough as this moment has been, as great as the price that we have paid in this moment, we know we don’t want to do it again. So let’s not make all the work that we have done meritless, let’s not make it for naught.”

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Whitmer is expected to announce more information this week about a response to crowds at state parks. In the meantime, she stressed that despite Michigan’s new normal seeming stable and warmer temperatures singing a siren song, things like social distancing and face masks are still crucial in keeping one another safe. 

Whitmer has repeatedly made the argument that the numbers are plateaued because the procedures worked.

How Coronavirus Changed the Conservancy

“The impacts of this pandemic have rocked our foundation,” Ogilvie told The ‘Gander.

That isn’t to say the Conservancy hasn’t been trying to adapt. It has, in some instances by turning to the internet and in others by accelerating plans to change their revenue stream, but it has been a challenge. 

“Not being able to welcome the community into the Aquarium these past weeks not only means that we miss creating memories with visitors, but that some critical resources have come to a halt,” she explained. “Aquarium operations rely heavily on donor support and are sustained in part by donations from weekend visitors, revenue from private facility rentals, tank sponsorships, and interpretive programs like field trips and tours.”

Worse still are the cancelled annual events. Just Chevrolet’s PwC Grand Prixmiere being cancelled has set the Conservancy back as much as half a million dollars. Some other events like the Polish the Jewel Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon are still planned, but the Conservancy’s goal to move from being primarily event-funded to primarily member-funded has been decisively accelerated to deal with the potential that even more events will be stalled. 

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They also are nearing the end of their #TIPTHESCALESBIA fundraising campaign to help cover aquarium costs during the pandemic. They’ve also moved some visitor interaction online, with services like virtual aquarium tours, to continue providing services as safely as possible. 

And then there’s the cost to their mission.

The fish are still being tended to every day. The staff is largely working from home. But the visitors, the memories made on Belle Isle, those are harder to bring into this new normal. 

Ogilvie said the mission of the Conservancy is “protect, preserve, restore and enhance the natural environment, historic structures, and unique character of Belle Isle as a public park for the enjoyment of all – now and forever.” The coronavirus hasn’t changed that mission, even if it has left them seeking new ways to rise to the challenge.