Last week I returned to Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula after several years away.* Despite Covid-19, vacationland looked as busy as ever. Americans still travel but differently, choosing road trips over flights, short-term rentals over hotels, outdoor recreation over urban crowds. Door County fills the bill with its miles of shoreline, hiking trails, and accessible location. Restaurants and their patio tables were packed by Saturday noon.
And yet, the restaurants are hurting. I found longtime dinner favorites open only on weekends, or only for breakfast and lunch. The limiting factor is not customers but staff. I saw few of the eastern European students on J-1 exchange visitor visas who usually help fill Door County’s seasonal openings. A frustrating quest for Monday supper ended well with locally caught whitefish at the non-touristy, non-seasonal Cornerstone Pub in Baileys Harbor. “Monday is our pot-roast special,” the waitress told me. “If we closed Mondays, we’d have a riot on our hands.”
I wonder if the labor shortage so evident to me last week will have any lasting effect. In medieval Europe after plague decimated the workforce, peasants were able to negotiate better terms. Landowners converted labor-intensive cropland to sheep pasture, and the wool industry boomed. Will Covid-19 reverse decades of low-end wage stagnation? Will some industries shrink and others flourish? One way or another, the natural beauty of Door County will keep attracting visitors like me, and local businesses will find ways to keep us feeling welcome.
*For earlier visits, see “Up North” (2016) and “Up North, Revisited” (2018).
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.