Rural northern Wisconsin counties have issued travel advisories to seasonal and second homeowners asking them to stay in their home area. County leaders and health officials say they’re asking people to stay put given their limited health care resources.
And, it appears the state will follow suit. Gov. Tony Evers is expected to issue a "stay-at-home" order Tuesday.
Vilas, Sawyer, Ashland, Bayfield and Door counties have urged people not to visit due to the spread of COVID-19.
The plea comes as the state is seeing community spread of the disease in Brown, Columbia, Dane, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Walworth and Waukesha counties. That means some people who have been infected with the virus are not sure how or where they became infected.
The counties asked those with seasonal homes to stay at their winter homes, and those who already traveled north to their seasonal or second residences have been asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
Bayfield County health director Sara Wartman said the advisory is a warning to people that they might not receive the same level of care that’s provided by health systems in larger cities.
"For people who rush to this area because they think it's safer, I feel I owe it to them to let them know that our health care system may not be able to respond to that need," said Wartman. "And, one of the best things that people really can do right now is to just stay home."
Bayfield County Board Supervisor Fred Strand said the county and Red Cliff tribe have limited staff and health care facilities.
"While we have some medical facilities in the county, many of our county residents need to go outside of the county for medical services or choose to do (so whether it) be Ashland, Hayward, Superior, Duluth or further," said Strand, who is also a member of the county’s health board.
Wartman said her department has two nurses, and the situation has been overwhelming.
"I've called in non-nursing staff to help in positions that we need assistance with for monitoring travelers and for monitoring close contact of confirmed COVID-19 cases," she said. "And, I'm calling in non-health department employees to help us with work in response to this pandemic. So we're trying our best to hold our own, but we are doing it all remotely except for one person who is in the office basically checking temperatures."
Strand said this is the time of year when many seasonal residents begin to return. He said one in five people are employed in the tourism and recreation business in the county.
"That's going to hurt a lot, and we regret not having them here and the money they'll spend," said Strand. "But a pound of prevention is worth a ton of cure."
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He said they’re worried about health care workers and emergency services personnel who may become exposed through their work and be unavailable to respond.
On its website, Vilas County public health officials wrote the advisory was issued in part because of limited medical facilities and its reliance on volunteer emergency services.
"Our broadband infrastructure is limited," officials wrote. "And with students, including kids home from college, doing online classes, as well as workers that reside in the county that are required to work from home, this resource is/will be reaching maximum capacity."
Vilas County also noted its stores don’t have the inventory or staffing to accommodate increased demand right now.
So far, there are no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Vilas, Sawyer, Ashland and Door counties. Bayfield County reported its first case Thursday when a Bayfield High School student tested positive for the disease after traveling to an area experiencing community spread of the virus.
The high population of older residents in the northern counties also played a role in their advisory urging people not to visit. According to state projections, more than half of the population in Bayfield and Vilas counties is already 55 and older.
Door County has urged visitors to stay home for the next 30 days.
"Door County has well trained and capable medical personnel, but staffing is limited and stretched thin during this emergency," said the county officials in a news release. "The County makes this statement in hopes of limiting the demands placed on local hospitals, emergency personnel, nurses and doctors."
The county asked hotels and lodges to consider canceling reservations and refrain from taking new ones to discourage travel to the area.
But, in Marinette County, county administrator John Lefebvre said crowds at grocery stores over the weekend resembled the height of summer's tourism season. He said an influx of people to the county may have its benefits. By definition, people in less dense Northwoods counties are more spread out from those in urban areas, and therefore may be less prone to spread the disease.
"You can enjoy the outdoors," Lefebvre said. "You can't go to supper clubs or bars, they're all closed anyway."
He said many people with cabins up north don't heat them year-round, meaning they may not be suitable for living in right now as the state enters a stay-at-home order. In a county with a population of about 40,000, he doesn't expect to see a population rise of more than 5,000 or so, less than what it sees in summer.
Editor's note: Rob Mentzer contributed reporting for this story.