As the pandemic's tentacles reached into the global economy, businesses faced onslaughts of slow-downs and diminishing sales as more people hunkered down in the sanctuary of their homes.
Warnings were dire: Businesses may not be able to survive. Support them. Buy local. Buy gift certificates. Buy takeout.
Governmental bodies were warned to expect significant drops in their revenue streams from the half-percent sales tax that some counties are allowed by state law to collect. Washburn County, for one, has been collecting the tax since 1991 and had expressed some fears early on in the pandemic that it would take a hit this year.
People apparently took to heart the urging to shop locally, and that, along with other factors, boosted the sales taxes collection in the county to its highest level ever: $1,526,485 (rounded up to the dollar).
That far eclipses the past two records, $1,376,449 collected in 2019 and $1,300,035
in 2018, the only other years the tax brought in more than $1.3 million.
The county had surpassed the $1 million mark for the first time in 2004 and steadily rose until it dropped back a quarter in 2008 and never regained its $1 million-plus threshold again until 2012.
Sales tax collection had looked quite promising in the first quarter of 2020, but it plunged in April to less than half once the pandemic got a foothold. May, too, was slower, but the timing of the pandemic had its silver lining: It started well before the economically crucial summer season began, giving time to "flatten the curve" and put "stop the spread" protocols in place.
The sales tax topped last year's in two-thirds of the summer months, then surged ahead again through the fall and through the holiday season.
"It is interesting that we set a record for sales tax collection," said Carol Dunn, who wears hats as the owner of Northwind Book & Fiber and a member of the Spooner City Council and the city's Business Improvement District. "While it would not have been expected at the start of the pandemic, it is not surprising, based on my own store's experience and that of many of the downtown businesses. We had many months of record sales, with December holiday shopping being particularly strong.
"I believe several factors are at play. Our customers have been very conscientious about shopping local and concerned that their favorite businesses stay in business. And we are so thankful for that. The cabin folks have been here more often and for more extended periods of time. People are appreciating the opportunity to naturally social distance in all our beautiful outdoor space in the Northwoods.
"I also think that if people haven't lost their jobs, they have more disposable income, because they aren't taking big trips or eating out as much.
"I know, of course, that a strong year was not the case for all businesses and hope that they will experience a rebound this year," Dunn said.
"Buying local" was not the only factor that helped keep the local economy afloat.
Another factor was "the largest retail store in Washburn County opened at the beginning of the pandemic," said Joel Zimmerman, executive director of the Washburn County Economic Development Corporation. "Tractor Supply Company tends to sell larger-ticket items than the previous two tenants in that building, Shopko Hometown and Pamida."
Tourists definitely added to the sales tax numbers, also.
"Thanks to the hard work of the Washburn County Tourism Association and the low COVID numbers we had most of the year, we saw an influx of tourists show interest in Washburn County this year," Zimmerman said. "Visitors spent a lot of time and money here last year."
"I think it's too early to say if the tourism sector from an economic impact standpoint is up this year or not," said Michelle Martin, executive director of the Washburn County Tourism Association (WCTA). "I think it is smart to wait for the research from Travel Wisconsin to come out on the impact before I say that the financial impact for tourism in our area was a record. Since sales tax includes more than just tourism spending, there are things that could have seen an increase that aren't directly tourism related.
"I can say that we had a lot of traffic this year and had record information requests, but what that amounts to from an economic standpoint we don't know yet," she said. "People traveled differently this year so we truly don't know if the spends were as strong per visit or not. In other words, more people does not automatically mean a higher impact.
"I am not sure what to expect with the increase in outdoor recreation and less dining in, attending events, and going to attractions. The tourism industry includes the following sectors: Lodging, Dining, Attractions, Retail and Transportation. Businesses that I've spoken with in some sectors did very well while other sectors likely had one of the worst years on record. I am patiently waiting for the research to come out this spring so we can dig in a bit on how things went and what we can learn from it."
At some points in the pandemic, some businesses were experiencing losses of 30% to 50% over what they would normally would have.
One of the aspects of tourism that did do well this year was outdoor recreation.
"We're pleased to tell you that our outdoor recreation has been through the roof, as we expected," Kaitlin Hanson, WCTA assistant director, said during a report to the Washburn County Board in November.
"Our cabins and campgrounds have done quite well since June – they've been very full, if not full to capacity, and most are reporting an increase in business," she said. "Our retailers across the board, some are doing great, while others have seen quite a bit of a decrease. So we've been trying to push retail as, well, the best that we can."
Hanson said the motels and restaurants have been hit "really hard," and staffing is a major concern for the majority of those businesses.
The pandemic forced the WCTA to flip some of its marketing strategies this year.
"So our number-one priority is bringing outside dollars into Washburn County's economy. It's been a little bit more challenging this year," Martin told the county board. "We've really had to adapt our marketing strategy, and really focus on promoting to the people who are already here."
Tourism is a huge economic force in the county. Tourism-related sales amounted to $47.1 million in 2019, with more than 525 jobs supported by tourism for an income of $11 million. Tourism generated $3.7 million in state and local taxes in the county in 2019.
Over the past year the WCTA-operated website WashburnCounty.org had 90,752 views, and 4,465 people were fans of the Facebook and Instagram pages.
"So we have a huge amount of people who are interested in Washburn County, which is amazing," Martin said.
By the time of the report to the county board in mid-November 2,475 people had requested informational packets through email, double the previous year, "which is very hopeful for the future," Martin said.
She credits "amazing outdoor recreation" for the full cabins and camping over the past season.
"We're also seeing a lot of people planning for future trips," she said.
The focus for 2020 had been to inspire local residents as well as visitors, said Hanson. Or as a WCTA handout described it: "Inspire locals and visitors to fall in love with Washburn County, explore our area safely and enjoy the abundance of outdoor recreation amenities the area has to offer."
Zimmerman said the Cares Act stimulus checks tended to be used locally since people were not able to travel as much.
"If the money wasn't used for needed expenses due to loss of income, people tended to spend that money locally more than ever," he said. "In addition, the added unemployment benefit of $600 a week to those laid off from work due to the pandemic was a huge cash injection not only into the bank accounts of Washburn County residents, but the unemployment benefit often gave people more income than they had when they were employed.
"This allowed many to make purchases of things they usually couldn't afford, and again, because of the pandemic, it tended to be spent locally," he said. "Those two benefits made possible through the Cares Act were not only cash injections for people, but it literally helped our small businesses survive the uncertain times."
Zimmerman saw a record year in residential home sales, including cabins that were purchased by people becoming full-time residents.
"The more our population grows, the more sales tax revenue the county will see," he said.
"In the end, it's really a combination of efforts by local businesses, local residents, our Tourism Association, and really everyone who made it possible for us to set a great record in the midst of such uncertain times," Zimmerman said. "As long as we continue to make Washburn County a welcoming destination for visitors and for those wishing to move here full time, we can continue an economic growth pattern into the future."
2020 sales tax
MADISON— Gov. Tony Evers signed Executive Order #104 and Emergency Order #1 on Tuesday, Jan. 19, establishing a new statewide public health emergency and face coverings requirement as the state continues to expand vaccination distribution across the state. (The orders are at spooneradvocate.com with this article).
"We're working every day to get vaccines distributed and get shots in arms to get our state back to some sort of normal," said Gov. Evers. "At the end of the day, vaccine supplies are limited, so while we continue to ask the federal government for
more vaccines and faster, we have to keep working together to stop the spread today by continuing wear our masks, staying home whenever we can, avoiding gatherings, and doubling down on our efforts to keep our friends, neighbors, and families safe."
As of Tuesday, Wisconsin has administered 248,185 vaccines across the state and began administering vaccines in Phase 1B to first responders and law enforcement earlier this week. The Department of Health Services (DHS) also announced Wisconsinites 65 years or older will be eligible for the vaccine starting Monday, Jan. 25. There are approximately 700,000 Wisconsin residents 65 years or older that would be eligible for the next round of vaccines, so it will take time to get through that group and will be dependent on the number of vaccines provided by the federal government.
WASHBURN COUNTY– With most frontline healthcare workers, other healthcare providers, and nursing home residents in Washburn County having received the COVID-19 vacination, the next focus is on firefighters, police, and people over age 65.
The county is following the vaccination order set by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), which announced firefighters and police could begin getting theirs this week and people over 65 can begin next week.
That is, they can be vaccinated in those counties that have sufficient vaccinations.
The Washburn County Health Department said on Tuesday it is ordering more vaccines. It will take awhile for everyone to be vaccinated.
"Wisconsin receives approximately 70,000 first-dose vaccines per week from the federal government to be distributed to vaccinators throughout the state," the health department said. "We are not guaranteed the number of doses we request from the State, and we will not know how much of the
requested amount of vaccine we will receive until Monday.
"We will release information on when and where vaccine clinics for adults 65 and older would take place as well as information on scheduling vaccination starting on Monday, Jan. 25, based on the amount of vaccine we are allotted," the department said.
Groups eligible for vaccination as of January 25 include:
• Phase 1A – frontline health care workers.
• Phase 1A – long-term care residents.
• Phase 1B – police and fire personnel.
• Phase 1B – adults 65 years and older.
Additional Phase 1B eligibility groups will be voted on by the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee (SDMAC) later this week.
Meanwhile, the Washburn County Health Department posted a survey this week to try to gauge how many people over age 65 plan to get the vaccine when it is available.
The survey will close at 4:30 p.m. on Friday to clearly separate the survey from future appointment scheduling.
The link to the survey is surveymonkey.com/r/JV2N6MD, on the county's Facebook page, and on the website (co.washburn.wi.us/news/publichealth/Coronavirus-Outbreak).
The survey has just three simple questions. It asks whether the survey taker is a Washburn County resident, and if not, question 2 asks for the name of the home county. The third question is "How many people living in your house are 65 or older AND want to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available?"
People can fill out the survey for family or friends who do not have access to computes or who are uncomfortable with the online survey.
"We will likely conduct similar surveys in the future as recommendations for vaccine groups are released," the health department said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 240 people took the survey, some of them for multiple household members.
At the highway department
The county's highway department in Spooner will become a site for some of the mass vaccinating.
While a drive-through scenario was discussed, it ultimately was dropped as being not feasible under the vaccination guidelines.
Instead, the vaccinations will be given in the crew room/conferencing room, which is large enough to accommodate social distancing. The vaccinations will be done there on Fridays only.
The health department expects those weekly vaccination sessions will be needed for six to nine months.
Safeguarding "Vaccination will take time," the health department advised. "Washburn County businesses and residents should continue taking the following steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19."
• Avoid social gatherings with anyone other than people who live in your home, as much as possible.
• Avoid large gatherings.
• Maintain physical distancing of at least 6 feet from people who do not live together.
• Use face masks or coverings when in public places.
• Frequently wash hands with soap and water, or sanitize with hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are unavailable.
• If experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 (dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/symptoms.htm), isolate yourself as much as possible and get tested. Call a hospital or medical provider before visiting in-person.
• Businesses should follow the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's guidelines for reopening (wedc.org/reopen-guidelines/)
For more information: https://www.co.washburn.wi.us/news/public-health/Coronavirus-Outbreak.
SHELL LAKE– It's a typical January Saturday morning on the shores of Shell Lake, as blue sky struggles to break through the low-hanging clouds that have covered the region like a blanket for several days. Out in the bay, ice fishermen prepare to try their luck.
And at the little diner located along nearby Hwy. 63, the breakfast crowd is filing into a recently opened business, the Blue Bobber.
Shell Lake High School senior Olivia Jury cheerfully delivers a tasty steak bite & egg platters and hot coffee to a hungry customer, while on the other side of the room an old friend of the owner comes in the door and the two exchange an excited hug in front of the fireplace.
It is a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and a breath of fresh air in this COVID-19 era that could do with a little more good news.
Recently opened, but familiar to generations of residents and visitors to Shell Lake, the building has been in place since the 1960s.
A lot of the customers are familiar with the new owners, Lance and Ericka Parker, both graduates of Shell Lake High School.
Many family and friends are stopping in not only for a great meal but also to congratulate the Parkers on opening The Blue Bobber.
It is truly a "mom and pop business," one of those wonderful all-American gems still found in small towns across the country.
Lance is a 1991 graduate of Shell Lake High School. He is also a truck driver who owns his own business and drives routes in the Upper Midwest.
Ericka is a 1996 Shell Lake
High School graduate.
She will remembered by many in the area as the 1994 Spooner Rodeo Queen. In 1998, she became Miss Rodeo Wisconsin and went on to compete for the title of Miss Rodeo America in Las Vegas.
"This is our third weekend," said Lance, stepping out of the busy kitchen for a few moments. "So far, everything has been going very good."
The two were married after Ericka returned to Shell Lake after time spent in Texas. She, too, has a second job.
"I'm the assistant principal at Northern Lights Elementary School in Superior," she said. "I drive back and forth every day. I love it."
Needless to say, however, the two do not get a lot of sleep!
"I'm up every morning at 4:30 to drive to work," said Ericka. "When he is driving trucks, Lance is up at around 1 a.m."
The Parkers have been thinking about opening a diner for a long time, specifically in The Blue Bobber location, a place they often went to for meals in the past.
"We used to sit at that table right over there," said Ericka, pointing to a table near the fireplace. "We got to talking, and thought, hey we could do this.
"We remember when this place was a drive-in. This has been a staple in Shell Lake forever."
When the building became available, they made the move, closing on March 4 of 2020 – just in time for the nightmare known as COVID-19 to begin shutting down and cancelling almost everything in America.
"Are we crazy opening during COVID?" Ericka asked, shrugging her shoulders slightly. "We just thought, 'Why not!'"
And so far, the gamble has been paying off for the couple.
Currently, The Blue Bobber is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Rather that diving into a full-time diner, baby steps are being taken.
"You've got to go slow to go fast," said Ericka. "Right now we're trolling rather than gunning the motor."
"We're planning a Grand Opening for the fishing opener the first full weekend in May," said Lance. "We'll probably have summer hours by then, and new additions. There is more to come. And we'll probably do ice cream in the summer."
The house special at The Blue Bobber is Lance's smoked brisket. Another very popular favorite are the smoked ribs. Both benefited from Ericka's years in Texas.
"When I moved back from Texas, I found you can't get Texas-Style BBQ here," she said.
"Up here, when they BBQ, everybody uses a sauce," said Lance. "Down south they use a rub, basically a dry sauce. It makes a big difference."
"Lance would make ribs like that," said Ericka. "I asked him if he could make a brisket doing it the same way, so he did. And is it good!"
"The brisket and ribs have been flying out the door," said Lance.
And for those not comfortable entering a restaurant during the pandemic, The Blue Bobber still offers an old favorite service dating back to its early days, a drive-up window for take-out orders. The past two Fridays, told Lance, 80% of the orders were drive-up.
The Blue Bobber offers debit or credit over the phone, and the popular phone app, Venmo. A web page is in the works.
The phone number is 715.731.0050.
Where did the name Blue Bobber come from?
"There was a lot of Miller Lite drinking in the garage deciding on a name," said Lance, laughing.
"It had to be something to do with the lake," said Ericka. "Yes, drink and think. We came up with 'No bag limits' as part of the title, but would everybody know what a bag limit was? Fishermen up here do, but we changed that to 'No Daily Limits.' Then we thought about a bobber, and because a lot of bobbers are red, maybe 'The Red Bobber.' But I remembered some blue bobbers, and we liked that. We just wanted to be a little different."
And so, The Blue Bobber was born. And with it, a longtime Shell Lake landmark was reborn.
Ribs, brisket, and a lot of hometown charm.