Tourism is top of mind across Wisconsin with Memorial Day weekend unofficially kicking off the summer season. But the coronavirus pandemic has some feeling cautious about how — and whether — to roll out the welcome mat.
"I'm very, very worried about rural Wisconsin," said Dr. Geoffrey Swain, former medical director for the city of Milwaukee Health Department.
Swain said he isn't worried about tourists introducing the virus to counties that don't have it. He said that "every county has the virus," regardless of whether positive cases have been detected. What does worry Swain is how much people are practicing social distancing across the state. Now that bars and restaurants have begun to reopen in many rural areas, not everyone is following safe practices.
After the Wisconsin Supreme Court tossed out the Evers administration's "Safer at Home" order last week, some cities and counties extended their own versions of the order to limit which businesses could be open and to establish what precautions they must take against COVID-19's spread. Other regions saw the court's ruling as an opportunity to immediately revive economic activity.
Areas that rely heavily on tourism weren't united on this front. Milwaukee and Dane counties, two of the top counties for visitor spending, both extended their own stay-at-home orders. Dane County's order ends May 26. The suburbs in Milwaukee County have a stay-at-home order in effect until Thursday while the city of Milwaukee's order currently has no end date.
But other tourist hotspots around Wisconsin want to open up right away. Walworth County is sixth in the state for tourism expenditures, falling behind Milwaukee, Dane, Sauk, Waukesha and Brown counties, according to state tourism data. Lake Geneva is one of several popular destinations in Walworth County, and local tourism officials say that in past years, the arrival of visitors could double or triple the amount of people in some communities, especially during big events.
However, that was before the pandemic.
"It's not as if the industry will just resume as it was pre-pandemic," said Kathleen Seeberg, executive director of the Walworth County Visitors Bureau. "It will, I think, be a slow reopening. I think people will take safety to heart."
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Walworth County public health officials are relying on businesses to take precautions to prevent spread of the disease. They said they didn't feel a need to extend a stay-at-home order locally after the statewide order was struck down.
"I don't think we thought it was going to happen overnight like it did," said Carlo Nevicosi, deputy director for the Walworth County Department of Health & Human Services. "But I'm confident in the planning I've seen from some of our business owners. They’re taking things very seriously."
Nevicosi said that officials are employing strategies including limiting restaurant capacity, using partitions when possible and using touchless payment.
In 2019, Wisconsin set a record for tourism. In 2020, the pandemic has already forced cancelations and delays of popular events around the state. Travel for one of the summer's biggest weekends and beyond could be limited or changed.
During a recent presentation to officials in Portage County, state tourism director Sara Meaney cited research showing that many people have canceled vacation trips requiring them to fly.
"That's really good news for us in Wisconsin, frankly," Meaney said. "Our target audience markets have been regional drive markets for a long time. That means we still remain a viable destination for many of the people we've been advertising to."
But as for whether they come to various tourist havens in the state, it may not matter how hard businesses try if patrons don’t feel comfortable.
"If they’re concerned about a practice that a business is employing, we’d advise them not to go. If you aren't comfortable with your ability in that environment to keep yourself 6 feet from others, we'd really advise you not to go," said Nevicosi.