Northern Wisconsin Vacation Counties Want You to Stay Home, Please



By Susan Lampert Smith

March 24, 2020

Large elderly populations and minimal ICU beds prompt request by six Wisconsin counties 

As the Coronavirus pandemic spreads, Wisconsin’s vacation counties have a message for people who own vacation homes: Please stay away.

On Monday, Door County joined the Northwoods counties of Vilas, Oneida, Ashland, Sawyer and Bayfield in asking snowbirds who may soon be returning to their northern cabins to stay where they are.

“We’re asking them not to come because of the health emergency and because we have such a large population of elderly people here,’’ said Cindy Burzinski, public information officer for Vilas County. “Our seasonal population increases the number of people here by 40 percent and our health care system just can’t handle it.”

In a travel advisory to second home owners, the county also cites the stress on volunteer first responders, an internet system already strained by students and workers accessing it from home, and grocery stores that aren’t stocked for the seasonal onslaught of shoppers. People who do return to the North from elsewhere should quarantine themselves for 14 days, the advisories say.

People who consider the Northwoods a retreat from the pandemic should also consider the lack of critical care hospital units. An analysis by Kaiser Healths News shows a lack of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds across the northern portion of Wisconsin.  

Vilas County, where nearly 40 percent of the population is 60 or older, has 10 ICU beds, or one for every 840 people age 60 or older, and Oneida County has 20 ICU beds, or one for every 590 elderly people. Those counties are flanked by Iron County and Forest County, neither of which even has a hospital.

Other popular vacation areas are in even worse shape. 

Door County, where 37 percent of people are age 60 or older, has four ICU beds or one for every 2,567 elderly people. Bayfield County doesn’t have a hospital but has an elderly population of 5,390 or 36 percent. Sawyer County has 5,431 older people and no beds.

Reaction has been mixed. On the Oneida County Facebook page, some seasonal homeowners took offense, pointing out that they pay taxes and are entitled to use their properties. 

Wrote one, “I believe that for local governments to tell property owners they are not welcome where they pay taxes … is a complete and total disgrace.”

Other seasonal owners are understanding of the problem, but think the county could have worded the “Don’t Visit” advisory less harshly. 

“The language was ‘othering,’ to those of us who also pay taxes and pay mortgages just like they do,’’ says Pam Penzey, who lives in Waukesha County but has a vacation home in Vilas County. She got the notice via the Birch Lake Association. She supports a several week “pause” on visitors to the Northwoods, because “this is a critical time to stop this deadly illness.”

But she thinks the counties need to think ahead to the busy season that kicks off on Memorial Day. 

“I’m doubtful this will work for the whole summer, so they should work out what a reasonable self-quarantine of summer homeowners would look like,’’ she said. “You will never get your seasonal homeowners to give up a whole summer when that is what they pay a mortgage for 12 months a year, for those three months.”

Ruth O’Regan, a Madison physician who has a vacation home in Oneida County, says she understands what is behind the message, but believes people can visit safely if they practice social distancing.

“I understand why they’re saying it, they undoubtedly do have less ICU capacity than we do in Madison,’’ she said. “But I think if people go to their homes and practice social distancing, it wouldn’t be a huge problem. All the restaurants and bars are closed now, anyway.”




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