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Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday answered the calls of many residents, business owners and health officials when he ordered everyone in the state to wear masks while in public.
Evers' order, which is certain to be challenged by conservatives who fought to overturn his safer-at-home orders, came amid surging numbers of coronavirus cases across Wisconsin and in the Northwoods.
Those numbers — with at least two patients identified from the July 20 free testing held at Lake Superior school, bringing Ashland County's number to 15,
Health Officer Elizabeth Szot said — prompted the city of Bayfield and town of La Pointe in recent days to adopt their own mask ordinances.
The city of Ashland also gave preliminary approval to a similar ordinance, scheduled to be finalized at a Tuesday vote, as neighboring Iron County became the fastest-growing virus hotspot in the state.
"To me this is more about making a statement; are we serious about this or not?" Ashland council member Matt MacKenzie said of the local mandate. "If we are serious, let's pass an ordinance and not worry about the application of it right now. Most of our citizens want to follow the rules, if they know the rules. We are going to have a few that balk at this, but in the end, our medical professionals are telling us this is the best way to handle it."
Evers' declaration of a public health emergency does not prevent local municipalities from enacting their own or even stricter measures.
It is scheduled to run until Sept. 28, and was welcomed by local leaders and some residents.
John and Jill Rogers and their daughter, Oliva, 5, were at the Ashland Super One Foods store Thursday stocking up on groceries, all wearing masks.
"I want to protect myself and my family," said John Rogers, when asked about the mask mandates such as Ashland's. "I am OK with it. I think they are trying to protect us — I am not sure if it is going to help, but you've got to do your best."
Super One Manager Dustin Copp said the family-owned chain of stores in Wisconsin and Minnesota now requires masks at all its outlets. But government mandates would help encourage safety, he said.
"I've been trying to take a non-political stance on it, but I thought if it was put into place by the city, it would make things easier. It kind of helps us police it better," he said Thursday. "We're requiring them, but at the same time right now it is not a mandatory law. We are trying to respectful to the people, but we are also trying to be respectful to shoppers who are wearing them."
In recent weeks, both Ashland and Bayfield county health officers have issued advisories encouraging mask use and discouraging public gatherings. They were joined this week by the regional medical society's call for masks and other safety measures.
The statewide order still leaves enforcement up to local authorities, which was a point of contention even with municipal ordinances.
Ashland County Administrator Clark Schroeder told the Daily Press he feared a government mandate could be divisive, prompting hostile confrontations in the community. He also worried about assigning another task to an already-busy sheriff's department.
But Acting Ashland Police Chief Bill Hagstrom believes a mandate will be enforceable. He wouldn't task officers with running around the city and stopping anyone with an exposed face. They would instead focus on specific complaints.
"It's like if you try to enter a business with no shoes or shirt on. It's not against the law, but if the owner says you can't come in and you say you aren't leaving, then we say you have to leave or you are going to be cited for trespassing," Hagstrom said.
Hagstrom doesn't predict that scenario playing out very often. Several businesses already have mask requirements in place and police have yet to be called to mediate any disturbances.
"I don't foresee it becoming a huge problem," he said.
Ashland Mayor Debra Lewis said City Attorney Tyler Wickman will amend the city's pending ordinance to include the state order, giving city officers the power to enforce it.
Meanwhile, Council President Kevin Haas said members might want to consider passing their own mandate anyway.
"I think it really depends on what the Legislature or the courts do," he said. "If nothing happens in the next few days, we might not need to, but if a lawsuit gets filed, which unfortunately I think is likely, we would probably want to move forward, but that's just my own opinion."
Lewis said the governor's stay-home order was rejected by the court because he did not follow necessary steps, not because he did not have the authority to act to protect public health.
"I think there is a lot more justification for this than there was previously," she said, with 61 of Wisconsin's 72 counties now at high risk for Covid-19 infections.
In La Pointe, which adopted its own local ordinance this week as locals worried about tourists bringing the virus to the island, Town Administrator Lisa Potswald welcomed Evers' declaration.
"I am very surprised but pleased that the state has made the same decision the town of La Pointe Board of Supervisors had already made. While the mandate originates from the state, the town will still need to monitor local compliance."
Republican state Sen. Steve Nass, one of the Legislature's most conservative members, immediately called Thursday for lawmakers to meet in an emergency session to kill the order, which he called "illegal and unnecessary."
Evers said he would welcome the Legislature meeting to address the pandemic, which it hasn't done since mid-April. But he said it was a "sad commentary" that Nass wanted to reconvene just to kill the mask order.
"Obviously he doesn't believe that masks matter," Evers said. "That's fine, he can be one of those people that flouts the order. But to come in and have the Republicans say essentially we don't believe in science, it's pretty risky business. It's risky political business and risky health business."
Still others believe Evers didn't go far enough. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group called on Evers and lawmakers to shut down the state's economy again until it is safe to congregate again.
Ashland City Council members will meet Tuesday to vote on any changes to local ordinances.
Reporters Michelle Jensen, Rick Olivo and Peter J. Wasson contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press.
When Jeff and Roxie Rude of Menomonie recently retired and packed up their RV, looking for a peaceful and coronavirus-safe place to visit, their eyes pointed north.
They landed at Ashland's Kreher Park, camping on the shore of Chequamegon Bay and making day trips exploring the Northwoods.
"We were here about 20 years ago and we loved it. It was beautiful then, it's beautiful now," said Roxie Rude.
"This seems to be what everybody else is choosing to do."
She's right. As coronavirus has quashed many families' summer vacation plans, many campgrounds in the Northwoods are booming.
"Statewide we have definitely seen an increase in the demand for camping; it's always busy, but it's certainly busier this year," said DNR Business Operations Section Chief Chris Pedretti.
That increase includes the DNR's two campgrounds in Ashland and Bayfield
counties. From June 10 through July 20 this year the camping facilities at Copper Falls State Park have seen a usage increase of 12.88% over the same period last year, from 84.29% of full occupancy in 2019 to 97.17% this year. At Big Bay State Park in Bayfield County, the increase has been 7.98 percent, from 85.45% occupancy in 2019 to 93.39% this year.
Pedretti said he believed the increase has been due to a couple of factors tied into the pandemic.
"Obviously, part of it is that people are looking for recreational outlets, things to do, but without traveling like they normally would during the summer season," he said. "People are not doing the big vacations and traveling by air, but opting to visit places within the state, doing things like camping instead of other vacations."
Pedretti said that conclusion was supported by recreational vehicle and camper sales figures reported by manufacturers.
"They are seeing record numbers of sales this year. Their industry is through the roof," he said. "People are looking for an outlet, not spending money on big vacations. That translates to people looking to get out more and our occupancy increases at the parks."
The Rudes support that conclusion. They made the jaunt to Ashland rather than taking a longer vacation to avoid unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus.
"We've got our masks and we keep sanitizer and wipes in the truck, and every time we come in and out, we wipe up," said Jeff Rude.
"We pretty much did all our grocery shopping before we left home so we don't have to frequent places here," Roxie Rude agreed. "Traveling like this you are pretty much self-contained, even around a campfire, you can keep social distance."
Pedretti said the DNR is emphasizing safety for reservation holders, reminding people to do exactly what the Rudes are doing.
"We have been very carefully monitoring capacity at state parks, and enacting property closures if things are getting too busy," he said. Copper Falls has fallen under those restrictions a few times this summer.
"At places like Devil's Lake it happens every weekend; we've also closed down some of the high congregation points, like the tower at Copper Falls. We don't want people getting into places where they don't have the ability to social distance."
That attitude is shared by Ashland County Public Health Officer Elizabeth Szot.
Officer Elizabeth Szot. "We encourage everybody who is going to recreate or go camping to enjoy the great outdoors, to do it responsibly," she said. "We encourage them to recreate close to home, rather than travel to far off destinations."
Szot said people should observe responsible camping practices, such as camping with family only and avoiding group camping.
"If they are going to be camping with a group they should wear face coverings while they are camping," she said. "Caution and good sense is important."
In the city of Ashland, Parks and Recreation Assistant Linda Simanovsky reported that RV park use is bucking the trend this summer, down just a bit with this year's occupancy rate at about 82% compared to 90% for 2019. The city's campground facility at Prentice Park is closed this year for reconstruction.
"We've been busy, but we haven't been getting the 100% occupancy we would typically be getting in the month of July," she said. "Typically we would hardly have any sites open, and we have overflow camping and people coming into the sites waiting for people to leave so they can pull into the site. We've had a little of that, but not to the degree we've had in years past."
Simanovsky said when the RV park first reopened in May, there was a sudden influx into the park as vacationers sought to escape from Safer at Home restrictions and enjoy the outdoors.
"Everybody flooded in and then they realized there wasn't a whole lot to do here; the restaurants weren't open, there was no Big Top, the Visitor Center was closed, things like that," she said. "There were campers coming in, but it was pretty quiet. Even now, in July, we've been pretty busy, but without the big events like Bay Days happening in the area, the draw is a little bit less."
Still, the situation presents an opportunity for visitors, who otherwise would have little chance of getting into the park on the shore of Chequamegon Bay.
"That is the real draw for Kreher Park, once people see it really is on the lake, they often extend their stay," Simanovsky said.
Meanwhile while the National Park Service offers camping on 19 of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore's 21 islands, all camping there has been closed until further notice because of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
In the Ashland County Forest, only primitive camping is offered. Forest Administrator Chris Hoffman said the county has no developed campsites on any of the 40,083 acres.
"We generally only get a very few campers in the forest. People are free to camp there, but there are no amenities like electricity or restroom facilities," he said.
Our Saturday edition at the Ashland Daily Press traditionally has been our weekend paper — the edition in which we placed our longer stories that delved deeper into issues of the day than our Wednesday edition.
But we've heard from both readers and advertisers that publishing on Saturday left some folks in a lurch. They didn't get their weekend sales circulars until the paper arrived Saturday after their shopping trips. And today, when opportunities to get out and do things safely are so very valuable, a Saturday edition often arrives after some weekend events are concluded or families have made other plans.
Those are among the reasons the Daily Press is moving from a Wednesday-Saturday delivery schedule to a Tuesday-Friday schedule, beginning with our Aug. 11 edition. We will offer more information about weekend events in the Friday edition — or we intend to when recreational life in the Northwoods returns more to normal — even as we continue to devote that edition to our longer-form stories. The Tuesday edition will remain largely focused on news from Bayfield County, though of course it will include important news from elsewhere in the Bay Area, as the Wednesday edition now does. It also will enable us to tell readers about what might be coming that day before municipal boards that meet on Tuesday evenings.
At the same time, we're expanding our free shopping guides, the Evergreen Country Shopper and North Country Shopper, into one publication to give both advertisers and customers a wider range and more opportunities to connect. The guide you're used to receiving in your mailbox will go from eight pages to 20 and will include ads from a larger geographic area.
We know some of these changes will disrupt the routines of some readers; we all love to sit down with the weekend paper and thumb through it at our leisure with a cup of coffee or at the end of the day when chores are done. But we think the greater opportunity to give readers advance notice of weekend events, more opportunities to shop and some other changes will serve most readers well.
- Jim Moran, publisher, and Peter J. Wasson, editor Ashland Daily Press