From Safer at Home to busier at the lake

People tired of being cooped up at home during the pandemic are flocking to Port Washington where the marina is doing record business, south beach is packed and downtown is bustling

The Port Washington breakwater was packed with people looking for relief from the heat a view of the lake on a recent warm day. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington is experiencing a pandemic phenomenon.

At a time when people may be hesitant to stray from home, they have been flocking to the city and its lakefront in numbers that by some measures surpass those seen in the years prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

Credit a pent up desire to get out of the house after living under the pall of a pandemic for months, as well as hot weather and good fishing, for driving the masses to the lakefront City of Port Washington.

“It’s been a historic-type summer,” Harbormaster Dennis Cherny said. “During the weekdays, we’ve had more people in here than we had on weekends the last two years.

“We’ve got good weather. We’ve got good fishing, and people want to get out. They’re tired of being cooped up at home.”

At the downtown Harborview hotel, General Manager Cathy Wilger said tourist traffic has picked up as well.

“The corporate travel hasn’t picked up yet, but leisure travel has come back. Our weekends are especially strong,” she said, adding most of the hotel visitors have been people who live a few hours away looking for a safe place to get out.

“Not only do we have the lake where you can fish, we have golf courses and bike trails,” Wilger said. “We have a unique location where people want to be. People want to be able to walk around and do stuff in a place where you aren’t on top of each other.”

Kathy Tank, executive director of the Port Washington Tourism Council, said she’s been surprised by the influx of visitors.

“I didn’t know, given the high level of caution among people, if this would happen this summer,” she said. “I was really pleasantly surprised. 

“But I think people are searching for anything that’s a bit of normalcy in their lives — they’re looking for that, but they still want to feel safe. Port offers that.”

What isn’t normal, Cherny said, is the amount of traffic at the marina. 

“I wish every season could be like this,” he said. “This is a real summer. People are catching eight, 10 fish every time they go out. They’re getting good-sized fish, a variety of everything.

“We’ve sold more season passes than usual, and our daily launches are up. We’re way above the numbers we had last July.”

Cherny said that in the last couple years, the marina has recorded 2,500 launches “in a good year.”  

“I’m guessing we’re going to surpass that,” he said, noting this year there have already been 1,775 launches. 

On Thursday alone, he said, there were 101 daily launches — a number that doesn’t factor in how many of the 280 season pass-holders launched.

The marina parking lot has been filled every day, Cherny said, adding, “They’ve been parking on the streets all the way up to the police department.”

On Friday, it was so busy that fishermen parked their trailers up Jackson Street hill to an area near Port High, Assistant Harbormaster Lisa Rathke said.

“They were everywhere,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”

Fishermen have regularly been lining up in the wee hours of the morning to launch their boats, Cherny said, noting one morning he was called to the marina to deal with an emergency at 2 a.m. and the line was already starting.

By the time he left at 4:30 a.m., “there were a dozen cars in line,” Cherny said.

Rathke said that the parking lot is often full by 5 a.m. Typically, the fishermen will pull out between 10 a.m. and noon, when they’ve reached their quota, but the lot fills up again by 3 p.m.

But it’s not just fishermen, Cherny said. The marina is packed with tenants and a high number of transients visiting as well. Some stop for the day as they’re passing on their way to Door County, he said, while others spend a couple days here.

Last weekend alone, he said, seven large boats, 45 to 50-footers, were among the transients.

“Every available slip’s been filled,” he said.
The marina’s been selling a lot of fuel, Cherny added, noting that on Friday the marina sold 2,000 gallons of diesel and 1,400 gallons of gasoline.

Business has been so good, Cherny said, that the marina has already surpassed the amount of revenue it expected for the year in categories such as season launch fees and slip fees.

“We’re way above the numbers we had last July,” he said.

The city is drawing both returning visitors and newcomers, Wilger said, adding it’s a good thing to see. 

“There are some days you can’t even make a left turn downtown,” she said. “It’s good because I really want to see the businesses down here survive. Hopefully, this will help.”

Given the coronavirus and the nervousness surrounding it, the Tourism Council has tweaked its advertising to reach these people, emphasizing the fact that businesses in Port are taking steps to ensure people’s safety.

“We’ve put all the pieces together. We have outdoor recreation, businesses are taking precautions, we have natural beauty and the lakefront — and a good fishing season. It’s a cliche phrase, but we’ve got everything people are looking for,” she said.

“We’re telling people we’re taking added measures to make sure you’re safe and can enjoy all the attractions. That’s the kind of message that people seem to be responding to — together, we can stay safe, recharge and enjoy summer.”

The state Department of Tourism has been forwarding national travel studies that predicted that once the weather got warm, people would be ready to travel by car on day trips or overnight visits to communities that are close and that aren’t necessarily going to be crowded, Tank said.

Tank noted that many of the people calling for Visitor Guides to the city have asked if businesses are taking precautions.

“People are being smart about traveling. They’re asking questions,” she said. “I’m seeing more people walking the street with masks on. They’re social distancing.”

Wilger said safety has been a key for travelers.

“People are afraid of flying. I think that’s one reason people are staying close to home,” she said. “They want to go somewhere, but it has to be somewhere they will be safe, somewhere they won’t go home sick.

“We’re taking extra precautions to keep people as safe as possible.”

The hot weather also has people thinking about lakeshore locations, Tank added.

“I think a lot of people have been saying, ‘It’s so blasted hot — I’ll go to Port. It’s cooler by the lake,’” she said.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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