It Seems Like Everything Is Reopening. Is it Safe to Go Up North Yet?

Health experts say you should get outside, but caution against traveling around the state.

There are two stories coming out from city leaders around the state.

Some are saying everyone should stay home as much as possible; regurgitating truisms like “We aren’t out of the woods yet.” On Thursday, Mayor Tom Barrett told reporters “As much as we would like to believe it, this is not over.”

But others, particularly those in tourist hubs like Door County and Lake Geneva, are inviting visitors into their communities. They maintain that it’s safe to visit their beaches and parks and shops and restaurants and hotels, the opposite of the message Barrett and other Milwaukee leaders are sending out.

“We are down in numbers, but still very busy,” Door County Administrator Ken Pabich said of the county’s market areas. Pabich says that anyone who feels safe to go out, should feel free to go out.

Public health leaders in Door County are OK but cautious with places reopening. They don’t want to see public squares and markets become super busy for a while.

For one, they like having the autonomy to set their own rules regarding the local situation. When Safer at Home was overturned statewide on May 13, Door County was one of just a few counties to keep a local order in place, but only for a few days to allow localities to prepare to reopen.

Jim Heise. Photo courtesy of Shawn Millsaps and the Door County Medical Center

During a virtual press conference on May 18, Dr. Jim Heise, the chief medical officer with the Door County Medical Center, said “I think we need to open back up.” But he also added it was “disappointing to see the moment the governor’s order goes away people run to bars without masks on and start to drink. That, to me, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Sue Powers, the public health officer for Door County, told community members to avoid any place that is “not practicing the safest guidelines.”

For Milwaukeeans however, the guidance is to stay home. And if you must go out, don’t traverse the state.

Darren Rausch

Darren Rausch, health officer with the Greenfield Health Department, pointed to guidance from the CDC that came out last weekend, in which the CDC “encouraged everybody to stay at home,” Rausch paraphrased.

Before taking a trip, Rausch wants Wisconsinites to consider: “Is this a trip I need to take?” If a long-distance trip is necessary, he advised travelers to:

  • Load up on hand sanitizer
  • Have clean masks at the ready
  • Stock up on disinfectant wipes and gloves, particularly for stops at gas stations

Even when the pandemic in Wisconsin was constrained to just a few counties, the Department of Health Services was asking everyone to avoid traveling. Why? Because they didn’t want people from counties that had the virus (like Milwaukee) to bring the virus to the more rural counties that had been safe so far. That dream has since been smashed, with cases now being confirmed in all 72 of Wisconsin’s counties.

Lake Geneva was a different story. Four of the city’s alderman wanted to reopen soon after Safer at Home expired. Three didn’t.

The four votes won out on May 22, allowing beaches to reopen despite concerns that big crowds would arrive and allow the virus to spread. There are mandates geared toward protecting people, but they are limited. One beach that can usually hold more than 700 people is going to be limited down to 302 people. Signs inform beachgoers of social distancing protocols. But there aren’t many enforceable rules.

Within days of reopening, large crowds had already started forming on the daily. The City Council is already considering backtracking and putting stricter rules back in place.

One of the most popular streets in town, the lakeside Wrigley Drive, might be closed off entirely to force crowds to spread out.

After the City Council voted to allow beaches to reopen, the man who had managed Lake Geneva’s beaches for four decades promptly quit in protest. In his resignation letter he wrote: “I don’t feel it is morally right to put the beach workers, the lifeguards, the beach managers and the beach patrons at risk.”



Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan