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In A Challenging Tourism Season, Wisconsin Dells Workers Try To Stay Safe

The Tourist Town Has Seen Fewer Visitors This Summer, And Has Had COVID-19 Outbreaks Among Some Workers

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two people in a raft are pushed by a worker in a face mask at the bottom of a water slide
A worker wearing a mask at the Mt. Olympus water park helps two people in a raft at the bottom of a water slide Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in the Wisconsin Dells. Angela Major/WPR

The crowds in downtown Wisconsin Dells are on edge this summer, said Bella Hill.

“Customers this year have been kind of aggressive,” said Hill, a 17-year-old who works a summer job in the Dells. “Like, ‘I want this and I want it now.’”

Hill works at the Candy Connection, a small shop on a strip of tourist attractions — visitors can have their photo taken in an Old West saloon or get a fright at a haunted house across the street. It’s one of hundreds of businesses that relies on an influx of summer tourism.

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Hill said the Candy Connection and other downtown shops were so understaffed this year that workers covered for each other at other stores on the strip just so everyone could find the time to take a break.

She said working with the public during a pandemic, especially when you’re alone in the store, can be anxiety-inducing. Hill wears a mask when she works. Many of her customers do not.

“With the amount of people who come into the store every day, we’re exposed to a lot,” she said. “And a lot of times, they are not always cautious of the workers.”

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When Wisconsin Dells opened for the season in June, businesses promised to take precautions that would keep visitors and workers safe from COVID-19.

Some resorts reduced capacity in certain areas. Some water parks checked visitors temperatures at the gate, and added social distancing markings on walkways to space out the lines for water slides. Some businesses required staff to wear masks, and encouraged visitors to wear them outside of the pools.

Now, as the summer tourism season wanes, it’s clear those measures haven’t always prevented COVID-19 spread or assuaged visitors’ fears. Visits to the Dells are down. There have been outbreaks among workers — most recently, the Noah’s Ark water park announced that it would close for the season after employees there contracted the virus. And no one really knows how many visitors to the Midwestern tourist center might have been infected themselves.

Resorts Made Complex Reopening Plans But Faced Worker Shortages

For safety-conscious visitors, there are plenty of outdoor activities and other low-risk things to do in the Dells. On a Monday in mid-August, Maria Mungaray was out on the riverwalk with her 10-year-old son, Fernando. Rather than vacationing in Florida this year like they did in 2019, they drove from Chicago for a getaway of a few days that they spent mostly outdoors.

“We’re trying to have some fun in a safe way,” Mungaray said. “We’re trying to keep our distance (from others) and still have a life, instead of always being at home.”

Other tourists, though, had decided they’d rather not think about the risks of travel during a pandemic. Janice Burris of Freeport, Illinois, came with a group of 12 of her children and grandchildren to visit the Mt. Olympus water park.

“You get tired after a while of just ignoring your family and friends,” she said. “We decided, you know what, we’re done with that.”

a mother and son hold hands as they walk on a riverwalk
Maria Mungaray and her son Fernando walk on a pathway near tour boats Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in the Wisconsin Dells. Angela Major/WPR

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At Dells Boat Tours, staff members sanitize the seats before visitors glide up the Wisconsin River, taking photos of the Cambrian sandstone on either bank. It’s an outdoor tour on an open boat, but when tourists file onto the boat, they sit mostly shoulder-to-shoulder — much closer than 6 feet apart.

Visitors to Wisconsin Dells come from Chicago and Minneapolis, but also from St. Louis, Detroit and across the Midwest. The town of fewer than 6,000 people normally hosts more than 4 million tourists per year. Early-summer data show the pandemic has meant fewer visitors, but the full scope of the economic impact will take months to measure.

Many visitors stay for only a few days before returning home. But since COVID-19 can have an incubation period of up to 14 days, tourists who did contract the disease on a visit would almost certainly be back home by the time they showed symptoms — perhaps for more than a week. That delay makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to track infections among tourists. Tim Lawther, the Sauk County health officer, said “it definitely is a challenge” to conduct contact tracing on Wisconsin Dells visitors.

Another public health challenge: the sheer size and complexity of some of the Dells’ attractions. Big resorts such as the Kalahari, the Wilderness or Mt. Olympus include sprawling hotels, indoor and outdoor water parks, arcades, restaurants and bars. They were closed during Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order, and Lawther worked with them on their reopening plans in late spring and early summer.

“Some of these major resorts, they have 30, 40, 50 different businesses in that resort — multiple restaurants, all sorts of things,” Lawther said. “These are major establishments. And so their plans were equally complex and very comprehensive.”

Lawther and other health officials did site visits before they opened, and have checked in with them throughout the summer. He took the perspective, he said, that “good business and good public health go hand in hand.” But he also felt it was important to give businesses guidance that they could work with, rather than making broad restrictions.

“If we put out some order or some guidance that a business can’t possibly achieve, there’s no benefit to that,” he said. “Either they’re going to blatantly disregard it, or they’re not going to open in a way that they could, safely.”

The owners of the Tommy Bartlett Show, a water skiing and stage show that typically attracts thousands daily, announced in early May that the show would not open this year and would lay off 115 seasonal employees, performers included. Though its shows are outside, its crowds are seated together in a large auditorium.

A lumberjack show in town with similar stadium seating also decided to forgo the 2020 season.

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But after the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order in mid-May, most businesses in the Dells did decide to reopen. Romy Snyder, CEO of the Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Convention Bureau, said by June, they were getting enough calls and emails from people interested in visiting that it became clear to the business community that there would be demand this summer after all.

“Businesses were just grateful that there were things they could do to either open or remain open,” Snyder said.

One major hurdle for businesses was a relative lack of foreign guest workers. In a normal summer, Wisconsin Dells relies on about 3,600 workers in the United States on what are called J1 visas. This year, as foreign consulates shut down travel or stopped granting usual permissions, there were 360.

The visas are part of a cultural exchange program that allows students and scholars to experience America. Stacie Tollaksen of Intrax Work Travel, which supports the program, said many of the usual cultural exchange events for the student workers — everything from cookouts and a summer “Thanksgiving” feast to a volunteer event with an Easter Seals camp — were canceled this year due to the pandemic.

The J1 workers usually come from dozens of countries in Europe, Asia and South America. This year, nearly all of the participants were from just four countries: Jamaica, Russia, Turkey and Thailand. They worked in kitchens, on water slides, behind counters — pretty much any job that needs doing.

Snyder said in addition to the health and safety plans for reopening, this worker shortage was one of the key challenges the Dells’ tourism industry faced this year. And it’s one of the reasons downtown shops like the Candy Connection were so understaffed.

‘America’s Largest Water Park’ Closed After Outbreak

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Noah’s Ark bills itself as America’s largest water park. It’s a 70-acre maze of water slides, raft rides and wave pools. Its gate is closed and locked and its sign reads, “2021 will be a better year; see you then.”

Noah’s Ark opened in late June, but it struggled with staffing. Some attractions remained closed due to a lack of workers.

In an appearance on WPR’s “The Morning Show” on June 20, Noah’s Ark’s general manager, Mark Whitfield, said businesses were working hard to assure tourists that it was safe to visit.

“Sauk County has had very, very, very few incidences of the coronavirus,” Whitfield said. “And every business in the Dells has enhanced sanitation procedures. And I think the reason people are coming is they think that all businesses are doing their part to make sure this thing isn’t spread in our area.”

One month later, in an email to a Sauk County Board member, Whitfield took a very different, much angrier tone. He blasted a proposal to require masks, which he called unconstitutional, and called for the firing of a local health official, whom he called “a certified liar.”

Employing xenophobic language, Whitfield repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus” and downplayed its seriousness, at one point writing that no one in Sauk County had died of the “phantom China virus” since March. He called a mask order “a slippery slope to someone mandating women wearing hijabs” and said, without explaining, that he had a “religious problem with it (a mask mandate) … the mark of the beast.”

“We cannot allow leftist politicians in Madison or Milwaukee (to) dictate to free citizens in the rest of the state,” he wrote. “People come here to be a free people.”

Whitfield was fired shortly after the email became public. In a statement, Noah’s Ark’s vice president of water parks, Bill Lentz, said Whitfield’s comments “do not reflect the views of Noah’s Ark Waterpark or Palace Entertainment.” Whitfield could not be reached for comment.

Noah’s Ark would soon be hit by its own outbreak. Two weeks after Whitfield sent his email, Noah’s Ark announced it would temporarily close after two employees tested positive for COVID-19. A few days after that, on Aug. 5, the park announced it would remain closed for the remainder of the season.

One former Noah’s Ark worker, who preferred not to be identified because he relies on employers for his visa, said employees were given one day’s notice that the park wouldn’t reopen.

It wasn’t the first time workers at the Dells had been infected with COVID-19. In late April, an outbreak at one of the dormitories where J1 guest workers live left 14 people infected. Lawther said 190 workers who lived in the dorm were quarantined after that.

All of the major resorts in Wisconsin Dells either declined or did not respond to requests for comment from WPR.

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Romy Snyder of the Visitors Bureau said that room tax receipts and other measures suggest that tourism in June was down about 40 percent compared to last year. The state won’t release final numbers assessing the season until next year. Anecdotally, workers at various businesses said crowds appeared to pick up in July and August.

Even if that’s true, though, it isn’t likely to last. In the fall, Snyder said, most of the business in Wisconsin Dells comes from conventions booked at the town’s mega-resorts. Most of those have been canceled due to the pandemic, or postponed until 2021.

Lawther said most businesses worked hard on safety plans. But it’s difficult to determine how consistently they were implemented or enforced, and he said there were other conflicts of the sort that Whitfield’s firing brought into view.

To Lawther, it’s a mistake to see public health advice in opposition to good business practice.

“Public health should not be seen as a barrier to business and a barrier to reopening,” Lawther said. “It should be seen as the gateway to making that happen safely.”

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