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After Crowds Drew Unwanted Attention, Lake Geneva Grapples With Way Forward

Southern Wisconsin Town Balances Welcoming Tourists And Protecting Against COVID-19

Lake Geneva
Courtesy of the city of Lake Geneva

Visitors to Lake Geneva may find wider walkways and more encouragement to wear masks after images of large crowds in the tourist town circulated on social media over Memorial Day weekend.

But they won’t face a new city ordinance requiring masks, and the city won’t block off some downtown parking spaces to make room for crowds to walk with greater distance between themselves.

City Council members debated the city’s response to last weekend’s large crowds at a special meeting Thursday evening. Lake Geneva, which is close to the Illinois border, regularly sees an influx of tourists on summer weekends. But over Memorial Day weekend, crowds of thousands jammed the downtown, reflecting the fact that Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order had been ended by the state Supreme Court while a similar order in Illinois remains in place.

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Those crowds drew national media attention and created concerns among many residents about the potential spread of COVID-19. In public comments read at the meeting by city clerk Lana Kropf, residents expressed concern for their own health and their town’s image.

“Thousands of people from the third-most-infected state in the union descended on our town. They didn’t wear masks, social distance or care at all about the aftermath they left behind,” a comment from resident Lisa Campbell read. “We attracted a very bad element to our town last weekend. Let’s make our town safe again.”

Another public comment from a local retail store manager called the high-traffic weekend a needed “shot in the arm.”

The council made few significant changes in the meeting, which ran for more than three hours. They voted down a motion from one council member that would have made mask-wearing a city ordinance. They voted down a proposal to widen walkways by closing some downtown parking spaces during the weekend and allowing pedestrian traffic.

It underscores the challenges municipalities face in setting a course forward amid the global pandemic. Lake Geneva, like other tourism-dependent Wisconsin cities, is trying to be welcoming to visitors and open for business while also seeking to protect residents, workers and the visitors themselves from coronavirus infection.

Tom Earle, the city’s public works director, told the council that the weekend was a “perfect storm.”

“We had Memorial Day weekend” which always attracts tourists, Earle said. “We had restrictions in Illinois. We had perfect weather. And we had the COVID. … If we would just take the COVID out of it, I think everybody would have been ecstatic about the weekend.”

None of the changes the council voted on will be put in place immediately. The city’s mayor has issued an emergency order that limits city employee travel and postpones government meetings, but the city order doesn’t address private businesses.

Since the state Supreme Court overturned Wisconsin’s statewide “Safer at Home” order, local governments have issued a patchwork of more and less binding rules. Walworth County, where Lake Geneva is located, has not issued a local order. On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit challenging local orders, suggesting that county and city governments have the power to issue their own directives.

In Lake Geneva, the way the city has approached reopening has been met with protest by some. Last week, two longtime managers of Lake Geneva’s Riviera Beach resigned after the City Council voted to reopen the beach despite concerns about spreading the virus.

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