Thousands of people take part in the Mackinac Bridge Walk every year, but in 2020 the event was canceled due to the coronavirus. It’s back in 2021.
MACKINAW CITY, Mich.—Labor Day is synonymous with Michigan’s annual Mackinac Bridge walk to Karen Dunnam, who has participated in the event nearly every year during the past decade.
Sometimes, she used the bridge walk as an excuse to travel a little farther, taking a ferry ride to Mackinac Island, biking a lap, and returning back to the mainland.
“It’s what I do on Labor Day,” Dunnam, of Grand Rapids, told The ‘Gander. “Assuming it goes.”
In 2020, the annual walk didn’t “go.”
It was one of many annual events that were canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, which has been confirmed in more than 900,000 Michiganders, killing over 20,000, according to state health totals.
“Having it not happen last year felt like a disturbance in the force,” Dunnam said of the bridge walk, which has been an annual event since 1958 with the exception of 2020.
Not having the walk was a shock to the system for many Michiganders. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people have participated in the walk in recent years, according to the Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA). One of those participants is Jill Postema, who with her family has participated in the event for the past 35 years.
“This was our family tradition,” Postema, a Lowell, Michigan, resident said. “It was incredibly sad.”
Postema said her family typically makes a trip out of the bridge walk, going north a few days ahead of the event and camping out. She’s excited that in 2021, she will be able to continue that tradition.
“I think when you do things with others, whether it be family or friends, those things become a tradition,” she said. “It’s the way you really make memories. We look back and remember when we were on that campsite or, ‘Oh, remember that year when the bridge was kind of swaying and we all got nauseous?’ Or, ‘Remember the year it was so hot or so cold?’. You just build memories.”
The MBA announced in July that the annual bridge walk would return in 2021. The announcement was made after a regularly scheduled board meeting at Mackinac Island City Hall, where board members welcomed the return of the event as COVID-19 safety measures across the state were relaxed.
Safety measures around the state have been relaxed in part because of the large number of Michiganders who have been vaccinated against the virus. More than 50% of Michiganders have been vaccinated, according to data provided by the state—including more than 65% of people 16 and up.
Concerns still exist due to the emergence of the Delta variant. Both Cheboygan and Emmet counties at the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula are considered areas at risk of high transmission. The CDC is recommending people wear masks at inside events in areas of high transmission.
Noting that she hopes it’s a sign things are generally headed in the right direction as far as the virus is concerned, MBA Director Kim Nowack said the association is happy to be able to offer the walk again after having to cancel due to the pandemic.
“In our mind, that kind of means we’re going in the right direction with COVID and getting ourselves out of the situation there,” she said. “We are allowed to have an event with 30,000 people gathered together, so that’s all good news (and) so we hope it stays that way and everything goes successfully.”
James Lake, a communications representative with the Michigan Department of Transportation and the MBA, said it’s hard to know whether to expect a larger-than-normal turnout because there is no registration process to participate in the walk.
“We are looking at participation in other outdoor events (and) there’s been a lot of interest,” Lake said. “Over the last year and a half, for outdoor events, you know, open-air events, you know, hiking, camping, outdoor sports, things like that (there’s been a lot of interest). So we can’t help but wonder if that’s going to drive participation in this year’s bridge walk, as well.”
Lake said safety will once again be a focus of the bridge walk. The bridge will be closed to public traffic from 6:30 a.m. to noon on Labor Day to keep pedestrians safe, authority officials said. This is a fairly new change that was implemented based on recommendations from the Michigan State Police and US Department of Homeland Security.
Bridge authority officials said the walk will start from both St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula and Mackinaw City on the bridge’s south side based on past successes. Doing this also eliminates the need for busing and offers more options for walkers, who can continue across the length of the bridge or turn around after going halfway.
As for COVID-19 precautions, the MBA isn’t requiring masks for anyone participating in the walk. The Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention guidelines for fully vaccinated people in an outdoor setting do not include a recommendation for masks but do note that someone living with an immune-compromised person may choose to wear a mask at a popular outdoor event, such as the bridge walk.