CONWAY — COVID-19 or not, the three-day Memorial Day Weekend is traditionally the start to the summer season in the valley.
Of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic and attendant restrictions, the summer kickoff weekend will look different this year. Attractions like the Conway Scenic Railroad and Story Land remain shuttered. Beaches along the Seacoast remain off-limits in New Hampshire.
But in his announcement May 18, Gov. Chris Sununu said outdoor activities in New Hampshire can resume, with restrictions and in groups of 10 or fewer people.
Among activities that can resume are biking, canoe and kayak rentals, outdoor driving ranges, outdoor shooting ranges, small fishing charters, paintball and outdoor guiding services for fishing, hunting or hiking.
Outdoor dining and golf courses also have been allowed to open, with the customary social distancing, sanitizing and mask-wearing. Campgrounds and most trailheads in the White Mountain National Forest are open. And retail stores are continuing to reopen their doors.
The general sentiment of local businesses, according to chamber public relations director Marti Mayne, is that despite hotels still being closed, the tax-free shopping available here will attract people to come and visit
“My feeling is that while campgrounds are open on a limited basis, without lodging properties to accommodate visitors, the majority of people coming to Mount Washington Valley will be day trippers,” Mayne said.
“With restaurants open, along with many parts of the White Mountain National Forest, limited attractions, and retailers beginning to reopen, it’s likely that the valley will begin to see visitors coming back for the three-day Memorial Day weekend,” she said.
“We hope they will be responsible visitors and observe social distancing expectations as well as understand the limitations businesses are under in order to reopen. We also hope they’ll be welcomed by the community that’s always been recognized as visitor-friendly,” Mayne said.
Dot Seybold, general manager of Settlers Green retail shopping complex, said: “Stores are beginning to open in Settlers Green. I think we’ll see more people than we’ve seen since February vacation.”
She added that Settlers expects to have about half of its 60 stores open with all the proper sanitation, social distancing and face mask guidelines in effect per the governor’s orders.
As for biking and canoeing/kayaking operations, always popular activities in Mount Washington Valley Memorial Day Weekend, local outfitters say they are expecting a good weekend with adherence to proper precautions.
Stan Millen, of Stan & Dan’s Sports of North Conway, said they are expecting a good weekend for bike sales and rentals, with proper safety precautions being followed for rentals. “We sell fun here and people are going to want to get out and try it. We of course have concerns for other safety of our staff and so we will be cleaning all bikes before and after the rentals. We have a new fleet of full-suspension Rocky Mountain mountain bikes,” said Millen.
Bob Tagliaferri, owner/operator of Saco Bound Canoe and Kayak (sacobound.com) of North Conway and Center Conway, and executive director of the Saco River Recreation Council, a group consisting of canoe and kayak rental companies, said several changes will be in place due to COVID-9 guidelines, including not for the time being offering shuttle service until new guidelines are issued by New Hampshire and Maine — a point that was echoed by Peter Gagne of Saco River Tubing and Canoe/Kayak Center (sacorivertubing.com).
“If customers want to rent, they can rent from us, and we will help put it on their car so they can go to the Saco or other local water bodies such as Pea Porridge Pond or Conway Lake, but they are going to have to drive their own vehicle,” said Gagne. “We also are doing sales of used equipment.”
“We are going to be offering some modified basic trips, renting and selling equipment but not offering shuttles — we can offer advice to them on planning their trips, in terms of how to leave a second car at the takeout,” said Tagliaferri, noting that all state safety guidelines will be followed and that cleansing of rental vessels and equipment will be strongly followed. He said Saco Bound is going to be relying heavily on online and phone reservations and pickups of equipment directly at the river to minimize social contacts. “People want to enjoy the outdoors and what better way to do that than on the river? So, we are here. But the bottom line is the safety of our staff and the public.”
Charyl Reardon, president of the Woodstock-based White Mountains Attractions Association, confirmed that their phones have been “ringing off the hook” from visitors inquiring about what’s open and where they can stay. “Most of those calling are not aware that lodging properties are not yet open,” she said.
Reardon said it is tough for all attractions operators as they await the go signal from the state.
“We are waiting for guidance from the governor,” said Reardon. “We are doing what we can to put in place those guidelines that are being requested for proper distancing and sanitation.”
She said only the Flume Gorge will be open this weekend, through online reservation only, at probably 16 percent capacity. “So approximately 50 people per hour, who will obviously be staggered in terms of admittance.”
She said other attractions are looking at similar options.
“We are very hopeful that all of our 17 attractions (Cog Railway, Story Land, etc.) will all be able to get open by at least July 1,” Reardon said.
Brian Solomon, marketing director at the Conway Scenic Railroad in North Conway, said his team is “working on social distancing parameters to our trains as we await further information on when we can open.” In the meantime, they are doing maintenance to the building.
Crispin Battles, marketing director at the Mt. Washington Auto Road, said they are hoping to open June 1, with private vehicles only. Like other businesses, they are examining other options, including modifications to their guided tour platforms as the season progresses.
Currently, campgrounds are open only to New Hampshire residents or out-of-state residents that are members of the campground. Campsites must be limited to six to eight occupants depending upon campground and campsite configuration. Camping must be limited to 50 percent of the campsites or to every other site, and no visitors may be allowed at a campsite. For more information, go to nhstateparks.org.
The White Mountain National Forest on Wednesday announced that “most campgrounds will be open by May 22 in New Hampshire and in early June in Maine” in the WMNF.
After briefly closing trailheads in April, the WMNF says most trails are open (though the closure order for the eastern side of Mount Washington, including Tuckerman Ravine, Huntington Ravine, Gulf of Slides and the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and parking lot, remains in effect).
“We are encouraging people to practice all social distancing and COVID19 precautions recommended by public health agencies when recreating,” said Colleen Mainville, WMNF public affairs specialist. For more, go to fs.usda.gov/recmain/whitemountain/recreation.
Thomas Prindle of Purity Spring Resort of East Madison said their Danforth Bay Camping & RV Resort along with The Bluffs RV Resort for ages 50+ is currently open.
“Despite there being significant changes to the ‘camping experience’ ... we’re expecting to be relatively active for the holiday weekend accommodating reservations for New Hampshire residents along with our seasonal campers returning for the summer,” he said.
“We are allowed to honor reservations for New Hampshire residents only at this time based upon the state guidelines effective through the end of the month. We are also currently requiring all campers to have on-board bathroom facilities in their camping unit, as all bathhouses remain closed at this time. All reservations must be made in advance,” said Prindle.