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DULUTH – The region’s leisure and hospitality industry continued to lag behind other metro areas in the slow crawl toward economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic last month.

The number of hospitality employees in the Duluth metro area was down 26% in October compared with 2019, according to the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The jobs agency is now preparing for thousands of unemployment applications across the state because of Gov. Tim Walz’s recent order closing restaurants, bars and gyms for four weeks.

That announcement came alongside some more positive-sounding news for locals: Duluth’s unemployment rate shrunk to 4.1% in October, down 1.8 percentage points from September.

But it’s not as good as it sounds. Carson Gorecki, a regional analyst for DEED, said the waning unemployment rate is associated in large part with people leaving the labor force.

“It’s a trend that’s been happening the last couple months,” he said, adding that schools switching from in-person classes to remote learning could have caused parents to quit their jobs. Retirements and COVID-19 concerns likely also have an impact.

More than 6,000 people have left the workforce since the beginning of the year in St. Louis, Carlton and Douglas (Wis.) counties. The region has gained back just 40% of the jobs it lost in that time.

Retail was one of the only sectors that gained jobs compared to 2019.

After hiring workers for the region’s busy summer tourism season, Gorecki said the hospitality sector’s growth has likely halted — though he said northeastern Minnesota has “a bit more of a corner on the winter tourism market” that could help the industry.

“That might be a boon for the region,” Gorecki said.

Elena Foshay, Duluth’s director of workforce development, said jobs are available and employers are having trouble filling positions in some cases, particularly in health care.

Many of those looking for work don’t have the right skills for those jobs, however, so Foshay is urging folks to reach out to Duluth’s Workforce Center to enroll in training or find out if there are opportunities for on-the-job learning or tuition reimbursement.

“If you’ve been laid off, that’s a good time to step back and think about going to school, getting training and shifting gears to get a more stable, long-term career,” she said. “Even though it’s really hard to think long-term right now because everyone is struggling with the day-to-day, try to use this opportunity to make a long-term plan.”

Those who have been laid off should apply for unemployment right away, Foshay said, even though it won’t include the extra $600 per week that expired this summer.

“Hopefully we’ll see another federal stimulus package,” she added. “Who knows what that will look like and when that will happen.”

Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.