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This Wisconsin tourist town has a new draw this year: Its restaurants are open

Residents of nearby Illinois are flocking across the border to escape their state’s tight coronavirus restrictions. It’s creating some tensions.

A sign encourages social distancing at a beach along Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wis. (Holly Bailey/The Washington Post)
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LAKE GENEVA, Wis. – This tranquil resort town on the shores of shimmering Geneva Lake has always beckoned as a kind of quiet Midwestern paradise, drawing people from all over the region, including those across the nearby Illinois state line.

And over the weekend, as the skies cleared and the temperatures rose, the town came alive as it often does in spring, with cars and motorcycles snaking in off nearby Highway 12 in bumper-to-bumper traffic along Main Street.

“This place always been the perfect escape,” said Kim Dowd, who had driven up from the suburbs of Chicago.

But the idea of escape has taken on a different meaning in the age of covid-19.

Tourists brought prosperity to an Idaho ski valley. They also brought covid-19.

In Illinois, much of the state remains shut down to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has sickened more than 94,000 people there and killed about 4,100. Bars and restaurants are limited to takeout only, and residents are required to wear face masks in public.

But in many parts of Wisconsin, where the state Supreme Court last week threw out Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s statewide stay-at-home order, many restrictions have been lifted in recent days, even as the outbreak continues.

Although some cities, including Milwaukee and Madison, are still enforcing safer-at-home rules, Walworth County, a mostly rural Republican stronghold where Lake Geneva is located, allowed businesses to reopen with no formal restrictions and only suggested guidelines for how to keep people safe.

“We have faith in our business leaders and believe they will follow these guidelines and implement strategies to protect their customers and staff,” Erica Bergstrom, the county’s public health officer, said in a statement.

In Lake Geneva, one of the many small towns in Wisconsin that transform into a kind of tourist magnet when the weather gets warm, safety meant different things in the aftermath of last week’s court ruling. Although almost all businesses were limiting capacity inside, only some were asking customers to wear masks and abide by social distancing rules.

At Gold Coast, a jewelry and art gallery along Broad Street, just a block from the lake, plexiglass had been installed at the checkout counter to protect employees as they rang up customers. But Patricia Stoll, the store’s 82-year-old manager, wore a face mask and looked nervous as she peered outside at a sidewalk crowded with people, many of them walking without masks and not observing social distancing. Those are the kind of crowds small businesses here need to keep going, she said. But she was surprised by “how normal” people were behaving.

Two doors down, the sidewalk was packed outside Speedo’s Harborside Pub and Grill, as dozens of people stood in line waiting for tables. Although many of the employees wore masks and plastic gloves, most of the customers did not as they stood crowded around an outdoor seating area where tables were positioned less than six feet apart and nearly every seat was taken.

Dowd, who had driven up with friends, stood waiting for a table. She had a mask but wasn’t wearing it. “Maybe I should be worried, but I’m not,” she said. It was warm and breezy — a lot different from being confined indoors where she argued the virus was more contagious. She believed public officials who argued that life had to go on, even if getting sick remained a threat. “If you aren’t comfortable being out, you shouldn’t be,” she said. “But I am.”

Around the corner, the indoor dining room at Popeye’s on Lake Geneva remained closed, but the restaurant had opened its outdoor dining area, where picnic tables were positioned more than six feet apart. Large signs at the takeout window asked customers to socially distance as they waited to place their orders, and most were complying.

Yet next door at Oakfire, another popular lakefront restaurant, the tables outside were packed, with customers seated back-to-back within inches of one another. On Friday, an employee said the restaurant did not plan to open until later this week to better prepare for new safety and distancing guidelines. But on Saturday, the eatery was open, welcoming part of the larger-than-expected crowds of day-trippers from Illinois who had descended on this mostly open town to escape their mostly closed state.

Nearly every car on the street here this weekend had Illinois plates — as has been the case for weeks here in the towns along Geneva Lake, where out-of-state residents own many of the homes. That has caused tension among locals who complained, even before the safer-at-home restrictions were lifted, that Illinois residents crossing into Wisconsin were putting communities that have avoided major cases of covid-19 at risk.

In recent weeks, two Wisconsin counties close to the Illinois border — Kenosha and Racine — have become coronavirus hot spots. Both were listed on a White House document obtained by NBC News identifying them as two of the top 10 counties in the country in the percentage rate of positive tests.

County health officials have said the high rate is the result of increased testing, but the increase has prompted fierce debate about whether the positive cases can be linked to those commuting back and forth between Wisconsin and Illinois, where the rate of infection is higher.

“Don’t be selfish,” a host on WTMJ, an AM talk-radio station that is based in Milwaukee but can be heard as far away as Chicago, said during a heated segment last week in which callers argued about the rights of Illinois residents to travel to Wisconsin during the pandemic. “Don’t come up here until we are safe.”

That concern has been even more pronounced in Walworth County, which has had a lower infection rate than other parts of the state. Fewer than 300 people have tested positive for the virus and 11 people have died. But just across the border, in McHenry County, Ill., more than 1,100 people have tested positive and 62 have died.

As many cities in Wisconsin opened up for the first weekend after the safer-at-home order was thrown out, other interstate tensions emerged. In Richmond, Ill., a town of about 1,800 people just a mile from the Wisconsin border, shops and restaurants already struggling to stay alive under Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order said Wisconsin’s “open” sign could be a death knell for their businesses.

On Saturday afternoon, there was steady traffic along Highway 12 — all cars heading north across the state border toward Lake Geneva, about 12 miles away. At the Richmond BratHaus, where an employee said business has been down about 70 percent compared to normal times, bartenders and kitchen workers stood in the open windows staring at traffic going by.

By then, McHenry County Sheriff Bill Prim had announced on Facebook that his department would not enforce Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, which runs through May 30. But with the state threatening fines, many businesses were unsure what to do, citing the legal uncertainty.

At Doyle’s Pub, where a front sign read, “Every business is essential,” the back deck had opened for business, attracting a handful of customers but not nearly enough to pay the mounting bills such as property taxes and payroll for the few employees who hadn’t been laid off.

Outside, none of the customers wore masks, but they sat at tables some distance apart, eating takeout. The bar was still closed. “Eat here, drink there,” the restaurant wrote in a Facebook appeal to customers to help keep the doors open. “We need you now more than ever.”