Wisconsin Vacation Area Struggles To Survive During Pandemic
NOEL KING, HOST:
In the tourism industry, most businesses make most of their money in just a few months. They're seasonal. In Wisconsin Dells, tourism is normally a billion-dollar business. But this year, because of the pandemic visitors are scarce. Workers are scared. And some attractions are shut down. Here's Rob Mentzer of Wisconsin Public Radio.
ROB MENTZER, BYLINE: If there's a skyline in Wisconsin Dells it's the twists of the water slides poking up into the sky. The town of fewer than 6,000 residents normally hosts more than 4 million tourists each year. There are about half a dozen huge resorts here with sprawling hotels and big water park attractions. But this year, this tourist town is facing massive challenges. As summer winds down, there are still families visiting. Janice Burris brought her kids and grandkids from Illinois to visit the Mt. Olympus water park. The group of 12 wears masks in common areas of their hotel. But Burris isn't too worried about traveling during the pandemic.
JANICE BURRIS: I mean, you get tired after a while just ignoring your family and friends. So we decided, you know what? We're done with that.
MENTZER: Romy Snyder of the Wisconsin Dells Visitors Bureau says the resorts made complex reopening plans, with water parks reducing capacity and requiring temperature checks at their gates.
ROMY SNYDER: Businesses were just grateful that there were things they could do to either open or remain open.
MENTZER: The big resorts, though, are just part of the economy here. There are hundreds of small businesses that rely on the big influx of visitors each summer. Seventeen-year-old Bella Hill works at a downtown candy shop. She says while there are fewer customers this year, there are also many fewer workers.
BELLA HILL: It's up to the local kids, kind of. This year, we don't have a lot of help, so some businesses - they can't even open.
MENTZER: Wisconsin Dells relies on foreign workers who come to the U.S. on student exchange visas. This year, because of the pandemic, Many countries wouldn't allow workers to travel. In a normal summer, the Dells has about 3,600 guest workers. This year, there were 360. The students face increased risks because many live in densely packed dormitories. In April, an outbreak at one of the dorms required 190 to be quarantined for two weeks. Bella Hill says some downtown shops are so understaffed that the workers at competing stores have to run over and cover each other's breaks. She wears a mask at work, but she says not all of her customers do.
HILL: The amount of people that come into the store every day - like, we're exposed to a lot. And a lot of times, they're not always cautious of the workers.
MENTZER: And there have been outbreaks. In late July, the general manager of Noah's Ark, which bills itself as America's largest water park, was fired after he wrote an email to health officials calling COVID-19 the, quote, "phantom China virus" and objecting to a proposed mask mandate. Just two weeks later, the park closed after two employees tested positive. It won't reopen this year. County health officer Tim Lawther worked with resorts and other businesses to craft safety recommendations.
TIM LAWTHER: If people were to fully institute the public health recommendations, people would have the confidence to go in, feel safe and protected. We have to get to that point, or this is just not going to end.
MENTZER: Tourism here in June was down about 40% from the previous year, though it picked up in July. But visits are expected to drop off again at the end of this month and in the fall, when most of the business in Wisconsin Dells comes from conventions. Most of those have been canceled or postponed until 2021. For NPR News, I'm Rob Mentzer in Wausau, Wis.
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