Memorial Day weekend kicks off summer tourism season but officials unsure of what’s coming

Trojan Horse at Mt. Olympus water park in the Wisconsin Dells

In normal times, Memorial Day weekend in Wisconsin would mean a start to the state’s summer tourism season. Boats would be put into the water, grills would be lit up, the Brewers would be on TV and travelers would flock to Door County, Lake Geneva, the Northwoods and Wisconsin Dells. 

But spring is turning to summer under anything but normal circumstances. There’s no baseball on TV, parades and festivals have been canceled and Wisconsin’s most popular tourist locations are only just coming out from state or local stay-at-home orders to restrict the spread of COVID-19. 

As summer travelers from around Wisconsin and its neighboring states pack up their cars and drive to these tourism hotspots, local officials are hoping guidelines and recommendations can protect visitors and staff while preventing new coronavirus hotspots. 

“Regardless of where people are coming from, if they’re willing to wear a face covering and practice some now-common-sense social distancing, we’ll be a little more comfortable,” says Jon Jarosh, spokesman for Destination Door County. 

But places such as Door County don’t have the healthcare capacity to handle a large outbreak of the virus. There are so far 34 confirmed cases of the virus in Door County. But nearby Brown County — where Memorial Day visitors could reasonably be coming from — is facing one of the state’s largest outbreaks. 

“Clearly as a smaller, more rural community, we don’t have the [hospital] capacity,” Jarosh says. “We’re extremely fortunate to have, year round, a community of 29,000 people. Our community has thought about that, that’s one of the reasons why our message to people is one of preparedness. Our message has been … a commitment to cleanliness and safety from a business community standpoint. Part of that is expecting our visitors to do certain things, that fortunately, for all of us, are a little more common. 

Complicating the plans for the weekend is the fact that nobody really knows what to expect in terms of turnout over the holiday. Door County Administrator Ken Pabich says that based on traffic, it seems like it will be busy. Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau CEO and President Romy Snyder says the number of calls and emails at the area’s welcome center is a sign of a busy weekend. 

Even with the potential for large crowds, Pabich, Jarosh and Snyder say they believe visitors can follow the guidelines to keep themselves and staff safe. 

“We are cautiously optimistic that everyone coming to the area will be respectful,” Snyder says. 

Jarosh says a survey of 10,000 people found 87% of Door County visitors were willing to wear a mask. Snyder says Dells businesses will be providing hand sanitizer and masks to customers. 

“We’re asking visitors to be patient and understanding and respect what businesses are asking their customers to do,” Jarosh says. “We’re asking them to respect that. If everybody can work together and do a couple things, we’re all going to get through this just fine and we’ll be able to get back to doing what we love.”

But even with some “cautious optimism,” it remains to be seen how successful these places will be at enforcing social distancing and mask wearing over the holiday  weekend and throughout the summer. 

Lake Geneva, another popular tourist location, saw large crowds of maskless visitors bunched together in restaurants and on beaches the first weekend after the Wisconsin Supreme Court lifted restrictions and Walworth County decided against issuing its own order. 

There were multiple news reports of visitors, many from Illinois, who were frustrated and tired from the pandemic and willing to flout guidelines for a weekend in the sun. 

As the summer’s busy season kicks off, officials say they believe they can keep the virus contained and boost economies that rely heavily on tourism. 

In 2019, Door County visitors spent more than $480 million — the eighth most of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, according to data from the Wisconsin Tourism Department. The Wisconsin Dells are split over four counties: Adams, Columbia, Juneau and Sauk. But last year Sauk County trailed only Dane and Milwaukee Counties in visitor spending — pulling in more than $1.4 billion. 

“Hospitality is a large part of what this area’s all about and certainly businesses have taken a hit over the past two months,” Snyder says. “But we understand as a destination we have to do everything to ensure our guests are safe. There’s no advantage to disregarding that just for the sake of revenue. It is a very fine line and we’re absolutely committed to doing it in a responsible way.” 

Statewide, Wisconsin brought in more than $22 billion in tourism-related spending in 2019 and Memorial Day weekend would normally kick off the tourism department’s summer advertising campaign. But because of the pandemic, the state isn’t promoting travel — even as local destinations prepare for their summer travelers. 

“We have pressed pause on that until it is advised and reasonable to encourage travel.” Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary Sara Meaney said in a recent Wisconsin Eye Newsmakers interview. “What we’re not doing is actively promoting travel currently. We are recommending, according to public health recommendations and guidelines, that people recreate within their own communities until it is safe to travel further afield.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin towns that rely on revenue from visitors are adjusting to the new reality  on the fly and trying to ensure people can stay safe. 

“It’s safe to say this year is not going to look like last year,” Jarosh says. “We’re still trying to figure out what it’s all going to mean. We’re going to make the most of it. Our tourism industry is anxious and excited to welcome people back. I think people are anxious to get out and about.”