COVID-19 Across Chicago: St. Joseph, Michigan


Summer in Chicago means escaping to some of the beach towns around Lake Michigan. But how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted those areas that rely on tourist dollars?

Officials in St. Joseph are cautiously optimistic travelers will flock to the beaches as the weather continues to get warmer.

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Interactive: More from our series, COVID-19 Across Chicago.

The situation in Berrien County in southwest Michigan isn’t much different than it is in Chicago. This part of the state is still under a stay-at-home order, but many restrictions are tentatively scheduled to relax on June 12. For the time being, there is no dine-in service at restaurants and retail stores are open by appointment only.

One major difference here: beaches are open, unlike in Chicago. They were open on Memorial Day weekend with a fair amount of tourists from the city and elsewhere. 

On Thursday we found beachgoers enjoying wide, sandy beaches, confident that they and weekend vacationers will follow the rules and stay socially distant.

“Everybody’s been good about keeping their kids and everyone distant,” said St. Joseph resident Traci Kachorek. “It was a little more crowded on Saturday, but we had a pretty good bubble on the beach around us.”

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Berrian County Health Department officials have recorded 796 confirmed and presumed COVID-19 cases, with 49 deaths and 449 recoveries. They are using contact tracing methods to try and stop the spread of the virus and are finding patterns similar to what officials see in Chicago and elsewhere: a higher number of cases among people who work in essential industries and those who struggle with complicating factors like diabetes and heart disease.

Berrien County Health Department Director Nicki Britten says the COVID-19 curve has started to bend, and cautions vacationers should keep socially distant, wear masks and wash their hands to prevent another spike in the area.

“When people come and are on vacation enjoying the beaches, sometimes you just tend to get a little more lax in your vigilance in protecting yourself and the community,” Britten said. “So we’re asking folks to stay vigilant for their own health and community, but for our community here so we don’t have more imported cases.”

Meanwhile, local business representatives are hoping tourists will heed that advice while keeping area stores and restaurants afloat.

Confusion is a common sentiment among store owners, who are complaining that state executive orders issued by Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have changed or have not been clear on the specifics of what is allowed and what isn’t. It’s left business owners hopeful as June 12 approaches, even though the economic hit has already been considerable.

“Southwest Michigan is incredibly dependent on tourism,” said Arthur Havlicek, president and CEO of the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Local businesses rely on almost 70% of their revenue between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with folks coming from out of town. With tourism taking a hit, these businesses are going to take a hit as well.”

One popular local store is a pet treat store called FuzzyButz, which shut down for the majority of the stay-at-home order before reopening three weeks ago.

Owner Mary Schaut says she questions why big-box retailers were allowed to stay open while small shops like hers weren’t.

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“This is a small business,” Schaut said. “We can keep the store fairly clean and sanitized, where the big-box stores, there can be a couple hundred people in there at once. Right now, I might have six people tops in here. So, its just frustrating.”

And over at Perennial Accents, a high-end gift shop, culinary institute and furniture store, owner Kellye Wilson says her sales have plummeted 80% to 90%. Wilson says her business is dependent on folks walking in and buying something they see on the spur of the moment.

“The biggest concern is, is the consumer gonna come back?” Wilson said. “I’m a small independent retailer, I cannot compete online.”

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz


Covid Across Chicago

How is the novel coronavirus impacting local businesses, residents and social service agencies across the city and region? And how are local leaders handling the crisis? We hit the streets to answer those questions and more in our ongoing reporting series, COVID-19 Across Chicago. See where we’ve been and what we’ve discovered in this overview. Listed is the official Chicago community area with the neighborhood in parenthesis where appropriate.


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