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Wisconsin tourism hit hard by pandemic

One after another, announcements of major event cancellations have rocked Wisconsin’s tourism industry and local economies over the past two months.

From the EAA AirVenture Convention in Oshkosh and Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield to the Tommy Bartlett Show in Wisconsin Dells and Chippewa Valley Air Show in Eau Claire, the hits from the COVID-19 pandemic just keep coming.

The other pillars of the tourism industry — restaurants, hotels, resorts and retailers — are struggling as well under Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order intended to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

“Every cancellation and every email about a business struggling is heartbreaking,” said Sara Meaney, state tourism secretary designee. “It’s devastating.”

Yet the crushing impact on the state’s tourism industry is not surprising. By definition, the industry depends on people traveling for fun, interacting with others and gathering in large groups — all things banned or discouraged under the safer-at-home order, which took effect March 25 and is scheduled to end May 26.

The dark spring stands in stark contrast to the sparkling economic impact numbers released last week by the state Department of Tourism for National Travel and Tourism Week.

The report indicates that visitors spent $13.6 billion in Wisconsin last year, creating an estimated $22.2 billion in economic impact and supporting more than 202,000 jobs. The 2.6% increase in spending from 2018 resulted in the best year for tourism in the past decade.

“It’s a very significant driver of our economy in this state,” Meaney told the Leader-Telegram. “In the circumstances we are now in, we see what happens when travel screeches to a halt and people are no longer out spending dollars in their local businesses or across the state.”

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that visitor spending in Wisconsin was down nearly $1.5 billion in the eight weeks ending May 2.

In the Chippewa Valley, the state report shows combined visitor spending totaled $414 million in 2019, including $259 million in Eau Claire County, $102 million in Chippewa County and $53 million in Dunn County.

Benny Anderson, interim executive director of the tourism marketing agency Visit Eau Claire, said seeing those numbers is bittersweet at a time when much of that spending is disappearing, but they make clear why he refers to tourism as the “lifeblood of the Chippewa Valley” and why it’s so important for the industry to recover.

“When you kick the stool out from under the events and all of the businesses that make up the tourism industry, it really puts a focus on how important it is to the economy,” Anderson said. “People in the Chippewa Valley really come together to put on these events and make this a destination for music and the arts, and we’re finding this whole thing melded together is really what made this whole area so successful. That’s also why it stings so much right now.”

Signs of hope

Despite the bleak short-term outlook for tourism, Meaney insisted there are reasons for optimism about the industry’s comeback.

Chief among those is that many of Wisconsin’s tourism offerings are what she called “social distancing-friendly.”

Home to more than 15,000 lakes and many waterfalls, recreations trails and spectacular natural areas, Wisconsin has an abundance of outdoor destinations that people are likely to be comfortable visiting before more crowded indoor sites, Meaney said, adding that the agency has been promoting planning for Badger State travel with the mantra “Dream Now, Travel Later.”

“Wisconsin is a great option for people who really want to get away but want to do so safely and make sure they’re taking care of loved ones when they’re doing it,” she said.

As northwest regional tourism specialist for the Department of Tourism, Julie Fox said the area she represents is particularly dependent on outdoor recreation opportunities.

“Up here we’re ideally positioned to continue to focus on those things,” Fox said. “Those outdoor recreation opportunities and the natural resources that make them attractive are still there. They’re just waiting for us to be able to visit again.”

Another source of optimism for Wisconsin tourism officials is that surveys have indicated many Americans are scaling back their travel itineraries, with a quarter of travelers planning to shift from flying to driving.

“Wisconsin has for many years been a strong drive market destination,” Meaney said.

Jackie Boos, tourism director for the Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Chippewa Valley’s driving accessibility could make it a particularly attractive destination for motorists, especially during autumn when visitors already flock to the area to see the fall colors.

“It looks like a lot of people will be staying closer to home, so we’ll capitalize on that when it’s appropriate to do so,” Boos said.

Recognizing that people will have pent-up demand to travel after being hunkered down at home during the pandemic but that some may continue to be uneasy as summer unfolds, Boos said the Chippewa Valley also could benefit from being a four-season destination and not relying as heavily as some areas on summer travelers.

Pressure to reopen

With the pain also has come pushback from business operators and Republican lawmakers arguing for the whole state, or at least regions less affected by the virus, to reopen sooner.

“A lot of Wisconsinites have made tremendous sacrifices in the name of flattening the curve and saving our health care system from being overwhelmed, and for a large part we have succeeded in just doing that,” Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, said Thursday at a news conference. “But now we have to begin to discuss our economic recovery.”

Based on the safer-at-home order and the uncertainty of when businesses can resume operations, Tom Diehl, president of the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions as well as the Tommy Bartlett Show in Wisconsin Dells, last week made the difficult decision to cancel the 69th run of the well-known water ski and thrill show for the summer.

Diehl called the cancellation “catastrophic” for a small, family-owned business that generates almost all of its revenue in the three-month period between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Its 115 seasonal employees were notified that the company no longer can provide jobs for them this summer.

While he acknowledged it was hard to imagine being allowed to have at least 2,000 people in the show’s 5,000-seat amphitheater — the level needed to turn a profit — Diehl said he still hopes to be permitted to open his Tommy Bartlett Exploratory soon with appropriate sanitization measures and social distancing restrictions. The attraction filled with interactive science displays typically brings in about 15% of the company’s revenue.

“We’re just trying to fight through it,” he said.

Diehl maintained that many state attractions, including the large water parks in the Dells, should be allowed to reopen. Like grocery stores, those businesses would be responsible for taking enough precautions to make customers and employees feel safe.

“I have no doubt in my mind that a majority of attractions in this state could open and open safely if given the opportunity,” he said. “The further you go north they have so few cases that it’s unbelievable they are closed down.”

Though COVID-19 has killed nearly 400 people and resulted in almost 10,000 positive tests in Wisconsin, Diehl argued the threat from the disease has been overblown.

“People have to take some personal responsibility,” he said. “If you wash your hands and don’t touch your face, you’re not going to get the virus.”

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, however, has said state policy is guided by public health experts and the recommendations of the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention. He has released a Badger Bounce Back plan that lists criteria that must be met, including more capacity for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, for the state to reopen gradually.

The governor has resisted the pleas for a regional reopening but not ruled out the concept, saying the virus doesn’t stop at county lines.

Fox, of Siren, said she has heard the calls for a regional approach and empathizes with struggling business operators and tourism-dependent communities.

But even as a resident of Burnett County, one of four Wisconsin counties yet to have its first COVID-19 case, Fox said she recognizes the risk of opening up too early.

“You don’t want to be that business, community or event that people are talking about 100 years from now because all kinds of virus occurrences were traced back to you,” Fox said. “You have to think about the future and keeping that positive image.”

If tourism businesses are allowed to open soon, even with restrictions on crowds and social distancing measures, they could at least salvage part of the summer, Diehl said.

In the meantime, Wisconsin Dells isn’t quite a ghost town, but the visitor count is a fraction of what it would be in a normal year, with boat tours, mini golf, go-karts and water parks all shut down.

“We’ve had three beautiful weekends in a row. There would have been a lot of people here,” said Diehl, who also sits on the board of directors for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Funds drying up

Debbie Sterchy, executive manager of the Chetek-based Wisconsin Indian Head Country, has been working with the tourism promotion group for 24 northwestern Wisconsin counties for 45 years and she’s never seen a year like this.

“2019 was a banner year, and I’m afraid the numbers for 2020 will be way down from that,” Sterchy said. “Who could have imagined at this time last year that we’d be in this situation this year?”

Her organization already suffered a major blow with the cancellation of the Governor’s Fishing Opener, an annual event it has hosted for the past 55 years — even at times with 2 feet of snow on the ground and ice covering the lakes. The group traditionally holds an auction during the event to raise money for tourism promotion.

In a cruel twist, as hotel occupancy rates plummet, tourism promotion groups across the state are suffering a massive loss in the room tax revenue that supports their marketing intended to lure visitors back to their regions.

For now, Sterchy said, tourism-related businesses are playing the waiting game and wondering when they will be allowed to open, what restrictions will be in place and how potential travelers will respond when given the green light.

The best advice, state officials said, is for businesses to be ready for when that day comes.

‘Bracing for the worst’

The pandemic seems particularly harsh for Northern Exposure Resort & Campground on Ojaski Lake near Chetek. The resort was slammed by a tornado in 2017 that caused an estimated $2 million in damage to vehicles, campers, facilities and trees, according to co-owner Gayle Davidson.

“Last year we finally started getting our business back to where it was, and now this happens,” Davidson said. “You have to be optimistic, but I’m bracing for the worst.”

Davidson said the resort already has lost at least $10,000 in reservation deposits and likely will lose at least $100,000 in revenue for the year because of the virus.

In addition to concerns about people’s willingness to travel because of safety fears and to spend money because of the layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts that have accompanied the virus, Davidson confided that he also worries about travelers spreading COVID-19, possibly prompting an extension of the lockdown.

Staff at Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau Claire have been planning for a potential phased reopening while also trying to keep the facility relevant, even though it has been closed since March 16, by posting historical photos and nuggets on social media.

With most of the museum’s 300 volunteers over age 60 and thus in a higher risk category for potential complications from the virus, director Carrie Ronnander said the 10 staff members may have to make do without volunteers initially and probably will shut down some hands-on exhibits.

“So then it becomes more like the old traditional model of museums that you just go look and see — the kind of model museums have been trying to get away from for the last 20 years,” Ronnander said.

Even if the museum, which attracts about 18,000 visitors annually, is allowed to reopen for summer, visitor reticence likely will lead to a 50-70% drop in attendance, she predicted.

Leinie Lodge closed March 15 and was forced to furlough nearly 50 workers from the hospitality side of Chippewa Falls-based Leinenkugel Brewing Co., said Lindsey Everson, lodge manager.

Leinie Lodge and the adjacent brewery, which attract more than 100,000 guests a year to downtown Chippewa Falls, are recognized as among the Chippewa Valley’s largest tourist destinations. That made it extremely difficult to turn off the tap, Everson said.

Leinenkugel officials are tentatively aiming for reopening June 25, or nearly a month after the safer-at-home order is scheduled to end, so they have time to acquire necessary protective and sanitizing supplies and to install a safety plan that will make staff and guests feel confident about returning. That likely will involve using more outdoor space around the lodge.

“Enjoying a beer with friends is really important, so we’re going to figure out how we can get back to that,” Everson said.

When tourism resumes, Meaney said she is optimistic state residents will lead the charge back to Wisconsin sites, in part to support businesses at a time they really need the help.

“Choosing a Wisconsin destination instead of one of our neighbors to the east, west or south,” Meaney said, “would be a great way to show our support for the state that we love.”

Lawns are the new wedding venue in the age of coronavirus

NEW YORK — Love in the age of coronavirus sometimes requires a lawn.

Couples with dashed wedding plans due to lockdown restrictions have been tying the knot on those tidy green spreads instead, including at least one loaner.

Danielle Cartaxo and Ryan Cignarella were supposed to get married in West Orange, New Jersey, on April 11 at a venue with sweeping views of the New York City skyline. Rather than abandon their Easter Weekend nuptials, they headed outdoors.

The tricky part was finding a lawn. The two live in Wayne, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles away, but they had a marriage license issued in West Orange, where Cartaxo lived until she was 5.

“We still felt like at the end of the day making that commitment to each other was important and we didn’t want to wait,” Cartaxo said.

But they were barred from marrying in a public space. That’s where a stranger, Janice Berman, comes in. A friend contacted Berman, and she offered her front lawn, with a few yellow spring blooms on one of her bushes as backdrop.

“My husband played the ‘Wedding March’ for them on a speaker,” Berman said. “We watched from the porch. It was really fun. They were so sweet.”

The couple’s maid of honor and best man attended at a safe distance, as did Cartaxo’s parents. The bride, in a short white dress, held a bouquet. A small, handwritten “Just Married” sign marked the occasion. They’ll have a party later.

“You have to be grateful in times like this,” Cignarella said. “Sometimes when you put goodness out into the world it kind of comes back to you.”

In Muskego, Wisconsin, Kalee and Tim Gbur weren’t in need of a borrowed lawn. They used their own for their wedding on April 18.

They had originally hoped to marry last October, but Kalee’s paternal grandmother fell ill and died in December at 101. Her grandparents’ wedding anniversary was April 18, and her chosen venue, a grand hotel nearby, was free on that date.

Then the pandemic struck and the couple’s plans were scuttled once again. What was once supposed to be a big affair with more than 250 guests was moved to their lawn.

“We went through weeks of trying to decide. Should we move our date altogether? Should we keep it April 18? I said, ‘You know what, I don’t want to give up our date. I want to honor my grandma,’” Kalee said.

They were going to keep it small and simple. Then her mother and sister stepped in with balloons and a huge “Just Married” sign with their names in their wedding colors, purple and gray. Loved ones decorated their cars and stood in the street, honking their horns in celebration. A neighbor built a wooden backdrop adorned with tea candles and flowers.

Somebody else provided a white plastic aisle runner.

“When we were doing this we were like, this is just not going to be what we wanted, but it actually ended up being better than what we wanted. It really touched our hearts seeing everybody there, just coming together,” Tim said. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

With social distancing in place, and high wind blowing, Kalee’s not sure exactly what their impromptu guests actually heard during the ceremony.

“They were pretty far,” she laughed.

GOP in power grab to rein in Dem governors on virus response

MADISON — Republican-controlled legislatures are increasingly trying to strip Democratic governors of their executive authority to close businesses and schools, a power grab by lawmakers that channels frustration over the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic but could come with long-term consequences for how their states fight disease.

The efforts to undermine Democratic governors who invoked stay-at-home orders are most pronounced in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all three of which have divided government and are key to President Donald Trump’s path to reelection. Democratic governors there face lawsuits, legislation and other moves by Republicans trying to seize control of the response to the virus. All three states have also been hotbeds of right-wing protest pushing for a faster reopening.

The GOP lawmakers’ strategy echoes earlier attempts in some states to curb the powers of Democratic governors. But this round comes with added health and political risk. By pressing for a faster reopening and seeking to override their governors, Republicans are betting that Americans are ready to restart economic activity — even if that risks steady infection rates and death in the months leading to the November election.

The moves come despite a recent survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that found a wide share of Americans say they are in favor of requiring people to stay at home, except for essential errands. But Republicans are mindful of other data, such as unemployment spiking toward 15 percent and higher — levels not seen since the Great Depression.

“A lot of people have this idea that we can just wait until it’s gone. ... We’ve got to live with this thing and you can’t live on unemployment forever, you can’t live on federal stimulus forever,” said Pennsylvania Republican state Rep. Russ Diamond, who boasted on social media of shopping without a mask this past week.

In Wisconsin, Republicans who control the Legislature asked the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court to block Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order which runs until May 26 and take authority away from his health secretary to issue extensions. In any future emergency, the secretary would have to work with the Legislature.

The Evers administration argued that limiting a governor’s ability to declare an emergency would prevent a quick response to any future epidemic. Attorney General Josh Kaul cited a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the “paramount necessity that a community ... protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”

“People will die if this order is enjoined with nothing to replace it,” Evers’ attorney Colin Roth argued before the state Supreme Court this past week.

Conservative justices voiced opposition to Evers’ order during oral arguments, with one likening the order to tyranny and Japanese internment camps during World War II. A ruling was expected any day.

In neighboring Michigan, the Republican-led Legislature sued Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and asked a judge to declare invalid and unenforceable her stay-at-home order and other measures issued to combat the pandemic.

In Pennsylvania, leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature have used legislation, rather than lawsuits, to try to strip or curtail the state’s Democratic governor of the power to decide which businesses must close under the state’s sweeping disaster emergency and public health laws.

One of the bills would have forced Gov. Tom Wolf to adhere to federal guidance in determining which businesses must shut down, rather than adopt his own. The bill passed without a single Democrat voting for it and Wolf vetoed it.

Republicans say Wolf has made big decisions without consulting them and gone further than nearly every other state in shutting down business sectors, if temporarily, such as construction, real estate sales, car sales and golf courses.

The Democratic-majority Pennsylvania Supreme Court has turned away two lawsuits challenging Wolf’s authority. The GOP is on friendlier turf in Wisconsin, with a conservative-controlled court that regularly backs Republican leaders, most recently in refusing to halt in-person voting during the state’s April 7 presidential primary election.

The strategy is spreading beyond the Rust Belt. In Louisiana, Republican lawmakers are working multiple angles to undo Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home extension. The most far-reaching involves a petition that would allow Republicans to override Edwards’ emergency disaster declaration and reverse all orders stemming from it.

The petition, however, has drawn some GOP critics in a state that was one of the early hot spots. Such a move could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.

“There’s just too many unanswered questions for me to support that,” Republican Senate President Page Cortez said.

Edwards has called the idea “completely irresponsible.”

But lawmakers also are considering a Republican measure to eliminate Edwards’ authority to penalize businesses that reopen early.

“We’ve flattened the curve. Now it’s time to start looking at reopening the economy,” said House GOP leader Blake Miguez.

Louisiana isn’t the only state where Republicans are divided over how far and fast to take the take the push to reopen.

Similar intraparty fights have broken out in Utah and South Carolina. In Ohio, where GOP Gov. Mike DeWine has aggressively used his authority to limit the virus’ spread, Republican lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House voted Wednesday to limit the authority of the state’s health director.

The move seeks to restrict mandatory closure and stay-at-home orders issued by the health department to 14 days. After that, the orders would need approval from a legislative rule-making body.

DeWine blasted the move, saying his fellow Republicans should be focused on increasing coronavirus testing, dealing with a $775 million budget deficit and reopening the economy.