Driving east on U.S. Highway 12, about 20 miles from Madison, the speed limit quickly drops from 55 mph to 25 mph as U.S. 12 becomes the Village of Cambridge’s Main Street.
Cambridge, with a population of about 1,500, is home to the Cambridge High School Blue Jays and Main Street is lined with boutiques and antique stores. The village, and the neighboring Town of Oakland, sit near Lake Ripley — bringing summer tourists and city dwellers to the parks, shops and bars in the area.
While the busy summer season of festivals and visitors has been threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the community face a new problem — Cambridge sits on the county line separating Dane and Jefferson counties.
This means the village was split in two following the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide “Safer-at-home” order and Dane County’s subsequent local order was put in place. Part of the village remains shut down under Dane County’s local order, while the other part — as well as all of Oakland — sits in Jefferson County without any rules restricting business or travel.
As of Monday, Jefferson County has had 61 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and Dane County has had 538, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Census tract-level data shows each of the three tracts surrounding Cambridge have had less than five confirmed cases of the disease.
Most of Cambridge’s businesses are on the Dane County side, but a number of establishments technically in Oakland are so close to the border, and the two communities are so intertwined, the distinction is negligible.
Only about 100 of Cambridge’s residents live on the Jefferson County side, according to Village Administrator Lisa Moen, but that leaves them in a sort of no man’s land, with their homes unencumbered by restrictions while their grocery store, gym, schools and village hall remain under the health order.
Perhaps the best example of how difficult it can be for a community caught between two counties (and two public health directives) is the Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, which literally straddles the county line.
The church, with a congregation of about 60 members, has been closed to in-person services since March and its pastor, Rev. Scott Marrese-Wheeler, has been providing near daily online video meditations.
Every year, the church holds an Easter service from the cemetery at the church’s original location and this year’s virtual service had nearly 600 people tune in.
Marrese-Wheeler said the church considers itself to be in Dane County, so it remains closed, but he says he’s been trying to work out how Alcoholics Anonymous meetings can once again be held in the building’s basement.
Other than the AA meetings, he says even if there weren’t a public health order preventing it, his church would remain closed and follow the guidance of church leadership, public health officials and science, because faith doesn’t need a physical location.
“The church has never been closed, we are worshipping and we are out doing ministry, we are just not doing it within the confines of four walls, because God is everywhere,” he says.
A normal Sunday service has about 30 people in attendance, Marrese-Wheeler says, and most of his congregation is older than 60. So not holding in-person services is a way to protect the most vulnerable members of his community.
“It’s like the parable of the good Samaritan, the one who you wouldn’t think to stop does take that time to stop and help those who are vulnerable,” he says. “Whereas politicians and others … they don’t consider the need of those who could be further injured by this. It’s about their safety, their health, their well being and our responsibility in living out that faith to care for others.”
“Our neighbors aren’t just in Cambridge or Dane County or Jefferson County,” Marrese-Wheeler adds. “They’re in more urban areas like Madison, Milwaukee or Green Bay. They work in meat packing plants or are in prison. They’re frontline workers in hospitals. We’re trying to be mindful of that. So when the time comes we feel we can safely phase back in, we will follow the guidelines set.”
Marrese-Wheeler’s church is a physical manifestation of the dividing line between open and closed, but he says there’s a more important line between empathy and apathy.
“Seeing God is in the acts of kindness and compassion and caring, and people have been stepping up in this time,” he says. “It’s kind of like that division between Dane cCounty and Jefferson County, but it’s a different line, that’s not so visible, between those who are compassionate and empathetic and mindful versus those who are serving their own needs and wishes.”
Of course he’s concerned for his neighbors who own small businesses, Marrese-Wheeler says, but he hopes the community eases forward cautiously.
Two tenths of a mile away from the church — in Jefferson County — is the Lake Ripley Family Restaurant. The restaurant’s owner, Arsim Ahmedi, says he wishes it was all or nothing because the community is so close-knit.
“We’re a small town,” Ahmedi says. “If one part is open, we all should be.”
Ahmedi says his restaurant was still just doing carryout orders while preparing to open the dining room the following week, but on the first Friday after the Supreme Court’s ruling, it almost seemed normal at the other businesses on the Jefferson County side.
Two bars, the Mink Farm Tavern and Sports Page Bar and Grill, were prepping their Friday night fish fry as a handful of patrons sat mask-less at the bar. The Lake Ripley Country Club’s driving range and clubhouse had opened.
But for some, even as they ventured out, there’s no such thing as normal anymore.
Fort Atkinson residents Galen and Geraldine Lardinois, were preparing to head out for a socially distanced round of golf at the country club Friday afternoon. But even with their county not reinstituting restrictions, they need to stay away from the now-open bars, restaurants and stores, because Geraldine has cancer.
Geraldine says she was concerned about the pictures of packed bars around the state and frustrated that the process wasn’t more cautious.
“I understand that they want to get back to their businesses and they want to make money,” she says. “But I think it could have been done a little more gradually.”
Her husband was slightly more blunt about it.
“On the flip side, you can make money and then die and then what good does it do you?” Galen asks.
Back on the Dane County side of town, businesses still under a health order were following the rules set by Evers last week allowing five customers into stores at a time.
At the Avid Gardener, owner Christianne Laing was grappling with the sea of gray area caused by this crisis. Her store is considered an essential business because she sells vegetable plants. She had only opened the store up for in-person traffic in the previous week and had most of her products in an outdoor space behind the store.
She says she wishes there was a united statewide front and that there was a more cautious effort to reopen businesses, but added she recognizes it’s easy for her to say that with her store considered “essential.”
“The virus doesn’t seem to be hugely happening here in our little Cambridge bubble,” Laing says. “I don’t know if that’s gonna change but I’m concerned it might change because people have to go to the bar. I understand that small businesses are struggling and trying to make money but I think you do what you can to pull that off. But you know, it’s difficult for me to say you should be closed but I’m open; people should stay home, but here I am.”
What’s left is a community coming to terms with the same issues as Laing. Local officials, such as Oakland Town Clerk Chris Astrella, are forced to forge their way ahead without much guidance.
“I’m not blaming anybody, but the Republicans that are in control, the Vosses and Fitzgeralds of the world, said before they wanted to create some sort of a plan,” Astrella says. “Clearly they didn’t have a plan, because that’s what’s frustrating for me.”
Astrella was preparing to reopen Oakland’s town hall this week and hold a socially distanced, in-person Town Board meeting on Tuesday.
Without any guidance, all that Astrella, other local leaders and business owners can do is urge precautions as they navigate this strange new world on two sides of the county line.
“This whole situation is very weird, very strange,” Astrella says. “I’m like, well okay, I hope we’ve weathered the worst of it and we’ll do what we can. We’re doing our best to keep people safe. That’s the best we can do.”
The two sides will be separated by the stay-at-home order until at least May 26 when Dane County’s order is set to expire at 8 a.m.