COVID Surging Among Young Adults in Wisconsin

COVID Surging Among Young Adults in Wisconsin


By Pat Kreitlow

July 1, 2020

Dane County responds by reinstating restrictions, as half of the recent cases tied to bars. Milwaukee County businesses call for mandatory masks. 

In the past several weeks, a new trend is taking hold in Wisconsin: Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise and the majority of those infected are young adults.

The trend is prompting some cities to reinstate restrictions to bars and restaurants. In other areas the surge has business owners asking for a mask mandate, while the surge is so large in one Wisconsin county officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have arrived to investigate. 

COVID Surging Among Young Adults in Wisconsin

“It’s clear that alcohol and coronavirus do not mix,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. “In just two weekends, the level of community spread has jumped from 24 percent to 37 percent. And the average age of those with the coronavirus in Dane County has dropped to 23 years old.”

Citing tremendous growth in COVID-19 cases, officials in Madison and Dane County are issuing new mandatory public health orders that will limit gatherings as well as bar and restaurant service after an analysis of people who recently contracted the coronavirus were shown to have been at bars and at large gatherings such as birthday parties.

Under the new order which begins at 8 a.m. Thursday, indoor dining for Dane County restaurants can only reach 25 percent of a venue’s legal capacity, down from 50 percent. Tavern interiors are for carry-out orders only.  Restaurants and bars may continue outdoor dining if they are able to maintain social distancing, and no tables can have more than six people from a family or household.

Indoor gatherings are limited to ten people, not counting employees; and outdoor gatherings are limited to 25 people, not counting employees.

Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, said about half of all recent cases are associated with bars and very few are associated with recent protests against police violence and systemic racism.

“The numbers that indicate that they have been at a protest or a demonstration are extremely small,” she said. “I believe it’s only 12 folks who have had an association (with the protests).”

For the two weeks starting June 13, Dane County saw 614 new cases of COVID-19 and about half were seen in people between ages 18 and 25.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi put the blame on those whose social distancing discipline has lapsed.

COVID Surging Among Young Adults in Wisconsin

”It’s believed the recent surge in positive COVID-19 test results is due to an increasing number of people ignoring the guidelines for behavior we know keeps COVID at bay.”

Parisi seemed resigned to acknowledge any new restrictions will make people unhappy in the three groups of people he says contact him most frequently: those who want stronger safeguards, those who want no restrictions at all, and those who say they favor guidelines but want their particular group exempted.

“People are often not exactly civil in their tone,” he said, urging people to return to a more united front about stopping the spread of coronavirus as was seen in the pandemic’s early days.

“We need to remember: the virus is our enemy, not the people working day and night to protect us from it.”

Asked if the new public health order would survive a court challenge, Heinrich had only a brief response.

“I would hope so.”

Milwaukee County

In Milwaukee, where bar capacity is returning to 50 percent this week as the city moves into its next phase of reopening, there are growing calls from locals and business owners for a citywide mask mandate.

Seventy-five local businesses, from small restaurants like The Tandem to entertainment behemoths like the Fiserv Forum and Deer District, sent a joint letter Tuesday calling on Mayor Tom Barrett and the City Council to require masks in public, a policy now being considered.

“Taking this measure will prevent us from becoming like Houston or Florida,” the letter reads. 

It goes on to say, “Let’s have Milwaukee shine, and truly become an example for our state and the nation of how to do this safely.”

Caitlin Cullen, owner of The Tandem, said a mask policy makes sense from a business standpoint in addition to a public-health standpoint. 

“It kind of frees up business owners to say, like, ‘Hey, this is out of my hands,’” she said, noting how mask-wearing has become senselessly politicized.

COVID Surging Among Young Adults in Wisconsin

Without a city-issued requirement, Cullen said, restaurants may be afraid to make a decision “seen as political.” That’s illustrated by the fact that, as soon as the businesses’ letter was released, online harassment came flying in, Cullen said. 

Winnebago County

In Winnebago County, in mid-May, when Gov. Tony Evers’ safer at home order was lifted after a decision by the state Supreme Court, about 100 people had tested positive for the virus, including 12 people in their 20s. 

That number has grown dramatically since then. The number of positive cases in the county today totals 683, with much of that total driven by people in their 20s. Since June 1, nearly 60 percent of new cases in the county have been detected in people in that age group, the Winnebago County Health Department said. 

COVID Surging Among Young Adults in Wisconsin

The increased instances of COVID-19 have been so prevalent there that staff with the Centers for Disease Control arrived in the county on Monday to investigate the surge in young people contracting the virus. 

Those figures follow a statewide trend in the past 10 days, according to state Department of Health Services figures. Prior to June 22, residents in their 20s made up about 20 percent of positive COVID-19 tests in Wisconsin. Since then, that age group has made up about 40 percent. 

Statewide, DHS statistics show the age group comprising the highest number of cases is those ages 20-29, making up nearly one of every four cases. People ages 30-39 make up the next-largest percentage of COVID-19 cases.

Western and Northern Wisconsin

A month ago La Crosse County appeared to have staved off the spread of the coronavirus. At the time the county had only about 30 cases of COVID-19, and the number of new cases daily was small, and sometimes none at all.

Then new cases of the virus exploded, with the majority of them among people in their 20s and 30s. As of Wednesday there are 455 known cases of the virus in the county, among Wisconsin counties with the fastest-growing rate of the virus. 

Many other counties across the state are experiencing similar surges of the virus, much of the increase driven by young people. 

The trend is similar in Eau Claire County, which has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. Of the 240 positive cases of the virus reported as of Wednesday, 37 percent were in the 20-29 age group. The next-highest percentage was ages 30-39, at 16 percent. 

The number of cases in the county has grown by 60 since Friday, when it totaled 180. 

COVID Surging Among Young Adults in Wisconsin

“Right now our biggest concern is our rapidly growing number of cases,” Giese said Wednesday, noting the increase has largely been driven by a surge among young people. “We really want (young people) to understand they are core to how we control the spread of this disease.” 

The number of positive COVID-19 cases among young residents of Chippewa County is rising too, health department Director Angela Weideman said. Of the county’s 90 positive cases, 24 percent are in the 20-29 age group and 20 percent in people ages 30-39.

“We are seeing (case) increases in people 40 and under right now,” Weideman said, noting cases are happening at both indoor and outdoor gatherings. 

Staff members contributed to this report.


  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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