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Summer fun options in Okoboji lessened due to coronavirus
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Summer fun options in Okoboji lessened due to coronavirus

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Mike Bartling helps his wife Sarah Bartling get onto their fishing boat at Emerson Bay State Recreation Area on West Okoboji Lake, Thursday. Summer activities at the Iowa Great Lakes region will be somewhat different this season due to state rules set in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

ARNOLDS PARK, Iowa -- State campgrounds will be open, but social distancing is required among some restrictions, and longtime popular restaurants such as The Ritz, Taco House and Tweeter's will have seating at only 50 percent of capacity.

There will be no free weekend concerts in the popular greenspace area of Preservation Plaza for the month of June.

Even the classic roller coaster at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, when it likely opens one week later than usual, will only have ride enthusiasts seated in every other car.

As the traditional kickoff to the Okoboji area summer season arrives on Memorial Day weekend, concerns over community spread of coronavirus have resulted a much different look at the Iowa Great Lakes region.

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West Lake Okoboji City Administator Derrick Miner said he thinks visitors to the lakes area will be cautious for the most part about what they do, but people sure are primed to begin the days of summer fun.

"We've seen quite a lot of people come in for Memorial Day already," Miner said Thursday.

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Musical instruments in Harmony Park, shown Thursday at Queens Court shopping center in Arnolds Park, remain covered in the wake of COVID-19-related restrictions. 

Back in March, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued proclamations that closed down certain retail outlets, bars and campgrounds, and limited restaurants to takeout orders only. Those types of facilities comprise a big draw in the Okoboji area from May through Labor Day.

Reynolds on Wednesday said the coronavirus pandemic has stabilized enough in the state for her to allow more elements to reopen, but with public health measures to ensure social distancing and proper hygiene.

Jeff Vierkant is CEO of Historic Arnolds Park Inc., which oversees the operation of high-profile elements along the south edge of West Lake Okoboji, including the amusement park, Queen II excursion boat, greenspace events and Queen's Court grouping of retail businesses.

"People are ready to experience Okoboji again...While the start of our Okoboji season will look a little different, I invite people to come and explore what we have to offer. I have a great deal of faith in Iowans and visitors to the Okoboji area. We will adapt to this," Vierkant said.

He said the amusement park will likely open on May 30 and plans for all rides will be open, although with distancing rules.

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Don Harvey, right, Ken Ford, Stephanie Ford, Stacie Harvey, and Jessica Ford, left, relax after lunch at their campsite in Emerson Bay State Recreation Area on West Okoboji Lake, Thursday.

"The health and safety of the park users is our prime concern," Vierkant said.

He said no concerts will be held at Preservation Plaza or the Roof Garden in June, but "all of the July, August and September shows are still a go."

Like elsewhere in Iowa, the bars at Okoboji can first re-open to in-store customers on May 28, due to another statewide Reynolds proclamation. There are lots of popular bars and restaurants along Iowa Highway 71 and near West Lake Okoboji along Broadway Street. That's where the longstanding Yesterdays seafood restaurant is located.

Yesterdays owner Jen Ferrell said she began serving meals on May 7, with every other booth blocked out so people can't eat there. Ferrell said customers are glad to return to dining out.

"Our customers came in and said, "I've been cooking for 55 days and I don't want to cook anymore,'" Ferrell said.

"My customers have been supportive and following the rules, keeping the six feet. That has been lovely to see, that they are conscientious."

She doesn't expect to have substantially fewer customers.

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People play on the beach while on vacation near Arnolds Park Amusement Park, Thursday, before Memorial Day weekend in Arnolds Park, Iowa, May 21, 2020.

'I hope we'll be OK. I know every business has a good year and a bad year. I hope this is the bad year and it turns around next year," Ferrell said.

She said the most lamentable loss is no greenspace concerts for a month, which are one block west from Yesterdays.

"It is great to see the foot traffic," Ferrell said. "The greenspace will be an unfortunate closing, because a lot of people who go there frequent the (Broadway Street) strip."

While there have been more than 15,300 confirmed cases of people testing positive for coronavirus and 375 deaths in Iowa, there have been only six positive tests in Dickinson County and no deaths.  Most people who contract COVID-19 will experience only mild illness and some may not need to be tested to confirm they have COVID-19.

There are several church camps along the Okoboji lakes that go back decades in drawing young people. While Lutheran Lakeside Camp on East Lake Okoboji won't hold sessions this summer, the Lakeside Center at Okoboji that serves as a Presbyterian camp will, although the start will be pushed back three weeks.

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Many shops remain closed at the Central Emporium, Thursday, before Memorial Day weekend in Arnolds Park, Iowa, May 21, 2020.

Those overnight camps will now begin on July 5, a letter from the Lakeside Center board of directors explained.

"We’re sure that you’re looking forward to summer more eagerly than ever. Take heart knowing that this will end. As Psalm 30 says, 'Though this sorrow may last through the night, God’s joy comes in the morning.' The days are coming when we can get out of the house, see friends face to face, and finally take a break from all of our screens," the summary said.

A lot of state parks at the lakes area get used for camping and beaches.  Those include Gull Point State Park near Wahpeton, and Pikes Point and Elinor Bedell parks near Spirit Lake. Reynolds said restrictions on campgrounds will be eased starting Friday at state parks, so they will be open for all types of campers including RVs, pop-ups and tents.

Park visitors must continue social distancing and avoid gathering in groups larger than 10. In campgrounds, only campers with overnight reservations — not visitors — will be allowed. Within the state parks, lodges, playgrounds and visitor centers stay closed.

One city owned park, Terrace Park, has a popular beach along West Lake Okoboji, Miner said the beach is now open and the bathrooms will open on May 27.

"We have social distancing signs up," Miner said.

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