Lake Country Cares officially launched Tuesday, May 18, in partnership with the area’s major health care providers for a unified approach for a safe reopening.

“This is very much a community collaboration, a community coalition,” said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president.

During a Zoom press conference, Kilian noted they were disappointed more businesses were not allowed to open for the crucial Memorial Day weekend, the start to summer in a lakes area where tourism and seasonal business is key for many.

After the coronavirus pandemic closed communities across the globe in March, the state’s stay-at-home order expired Monday to be replaced by a stay safe order with more businesses opening. The state is requiring businesses to create a COVID-19 preparedness plan, train employees and post the plan. Kilian said the plan is straightforward and may take three hours to put together. Businesses are not required to file the plan or have it approved by a government agency. The Lake Country Cares campaign is based around the framework of putting those plans in one spot and showing the community, the state and region the Brainerd lakes area is opening for business with public health safety at the forefront. The campaign is partnering with Crow Wing County to have the public health department voluntarily review plans and possibly provide suggestions for businesses. Those plans can then be part of the Lake Country Cares website. Kilian said safety is going to be the key in getting more customers back and earning trust. The effort is one Kilian believes stands out in the state and could make the lakes area a leader and a model to follow.

“No one else is doing quite what we are doing in the Brainerd lakes area,” he said.

RELATED: Lake Country Cares to host business webinar May 20 about launch

Tim Houle, Crow Wing County administrator, said he can see both sides of the current divide. Businesses have a legitimate fear of economic collapse and people fear what the virus can do and how it could overwhelm a health care system.

“So we have these two polar opposites that to my mind are talking right past each other,” Houle said, adding both are legitimate. He used the example of the danger of an automobile crash but noted the highways remain open. However, he said for decades efforts have gone into making auto travel safer.

“It’s not a question of risk or safety,” Houle said. “It’s both. It’s both commerce and safety.”

That’s where the campaign is focused. Houle described it as a positive approach and a plan that could be a leader in the state as a thoughtful way to reopen — considering business, health care and government. “We believe Lake Country Cares encompasses those goals.”

As the lakes area heads into the summer season, Kilian noted businesses are not just working with a local audience but with summer residents and visitors who are bringing with them a different expectation from businesses here.

“Safety is a competitive advantage,” Houle said of businesses and how they are able to make customers feel as they venture back into area stores and businesses.

The campaign

Aaron Hautala, president of Strateligent, a Brainerd advertising agency, provided the overview of the campaign.

The campaign works with three major tenants — breathe safely, walk safely and touch safely. Hautala described the messaging as easy and effective, which is then also easy to adopt. It works with lakes area icon Paul Bunyan with a face mask for the bearded one, ax handles to represent 6 feet of social distancing and hand washing or sanitizing for the three main areas. Participating businesses will have a unified way to display the message with a poster that can go by a front door along with the main parts of the businesses preparedness plan available to customers.

RELATED: Lake Country Cares campaign focuses on safe reopening

Hautala said Lake Country Cares offers a message of being safer together with a campaign that has a community promise to take care of each other. The information for the campaign is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as well as the state’s department of health and gives it a personalized message in a distinct lakes area look.

Other pieces include face masks in a variety of colors representing the look of lumberjack flannel, window decals with the Lake Country Cares logo, which incorporates a heart at its center to connect with the World of Hearts seen in windows throughout the community and the world in response to the pandemic. There will also be buttons with the logo. The campaign also has a website

“It’s been an impressive collaboration between all the entities involved,” said Brielle Bredsten, executive director of the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber, adding the campaign is a way to build on the confidence the lakes area is ready to reopen in a well thought out manner setting it apart in the state.

Amanda McGregor, Nisswa Chamber of Commerce president, agreed. McGregor said it’s been a really blessing to weave together all the parts of the coalition for the campaign, one that is based on creating a confidence in safety for businesses, residents and visitors.

Tuesday night during the Baxter City Council meeting via Zoom, Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson said the campaign was excellent because it was not only the chamber but included Crow Wing County and others in the community. Olson said he was impressed after hearing the presentation.

“By the time they got done it just had a positive ring for me and I’m not that easy to convince sometimes, but I was really impressed with it and I think that this is something that we should grab a hold of,” Olson said, echoing a comment Baxter City Council member Mark Cross said earlier in the meeting of the need to support businesses in the city. The council voted unanimously in favor of endorsing the campaign and adding Baxter to its list of supporters.

Health provider partners

Mike Larson, vice president of operations at Essentia Health in Brainerd, said the organization is pleased to be a partner. He said like others, Essentia Health is also bringing back services and elective procedures and looking at ways it can do so safely and with a COVID-19 checklist of screening, masks and social distancing. Larson said Essentia was happy to play a role and do what it can for best practices in the lakes area.

Tim Rice, CEO at Lakewood Health System in Staples, noted with appreciation the level of collaboration in the region. Rice said he asked staff members about the area’s readiness to reopen at this time and the campaign.

“We are prepared for what is coming,” Rice said, adding they are prepared because people worked together. “We are ready. Let’s just do it safely.”

Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, Crosby, is also a partner in the campaign.

Rice said the more individuals practice safety the better, and this campaign is also encouraging people to follow those safe practices because they do make a difference.

As for the summer population surge, the health providers said that is something they’ve been preparing for by adding capacity and flexibility to handle it. And they noted that influx has already been happening for weeks now as seasonal residents return. Larson said as there is a greater growth in population, there is an unknown in how effective the area can be in controlling spread of the virus.

Houle said this is what makes the campaign all the more important to promote reopening safely to benefit residents, businesses, health care providers and tourists. It’s a layer of protective strategies, Houle said, adding it isn’t about perfection but was about progress. “We can make this area safer together.”

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at