MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Some hospitality businesses surveyed by the state’s tourism agency say they expect to rebound to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year, which is an improvement over the outlook at the end of the last year.

Explore Minnesota in a recent report found six in 10 tourism and hospitality businesses had already met pre-pandemic business levels or expected business to return to pre-pandemic levels before the end of 2021.

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An earlier survey found businesses were less optimistic. In December last year, one-third of respondents said they could remain solvent for more than three months under the current operating restrictions of the time.

Five months later on the unofficial start to summer, all remaining pandemic requirements—including masking, distancing and capacity limits—have lifted, and the industry is ready to embrace recovery.

“As COVID restrictions lessen, it didn’t change people’s opinions about where they want to go for vacation,” said Joan Kjorsvig-Beans, co-owner of Jasper Company, a family operated business that has a coffee shop and inn in Ely and rental properties along Jasper Lake near the Boundary Waters. “You feel that there’s really good hope for the future. And I think people now that they’ve discovered Ely, they’ll be coming back whether COVID is here or not.”

Kjorsvig-Beans welcomed the governor’s executive order lifting restrictions that took effect Friday as she looks ahead to the summer, when Jasper Company hopes to recoup the losses incurred during the shutdowns early on in the pandemic. Last summer, though, she said people were still flocking north to travel and business was steady.

The interest in traveling in-state and enjoying Minnesota’s outdoors rose last year, state leaders said, because it is a fun and safe activity during the pandemic.

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“Really what we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is Minnesotans went outside and they went outside in really big numbers,” said Sarah Strommen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

After an “unprecedented” demand for fishing and hunting licenses last year, Gov. Tim Walz announced Thursday a vaccine incentive program that includes free fishing licenses and state parks passes for 100,000 Minnesotans who get their shots in the next month.

There are signs the interest in traveling within the state remains high, Kjorsvig-Beans said. More than 37 million Americans are expected to travel this weekend alone, which is a 60% increase over this time last year, according to AAA. Vaccinated people are eager to resume travel and life as normal.

“Our chamber of commerce is working diligently with all of our lodging facilities helping people find a spot because they are filling up,” she said.

But as rooms book up, jobs remain vacant—especially for the hospitality industry—mirroring a surplus of jobs unfilled nationwide. For rural parts of Minnesota like Ely, a worker shortage pre-dated the pandemic and then was exacerbated by the virus.

Leisure and hospitality employment dropped by 27% in 2020, compared to a 7% decrease in the private sector overall, according to state data.

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“We are definitely looking for employees. All of the restaurants here in Ely and businesses are,” Kjorsvig-Beans said. “We’d like to see a few more people show up for interviews because we’ve got positions open.”

Caroline Cummings