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Getting the Historical Record Right for the Minocqua Summer of 2020

Kirk Bangstad

According to the Oneida County Health Department, our county has had 47 Covid deaths to date, and the entire state is at 4,635 deaths as of today, Saturday December 19.

47 people in our small county in the Northwoods have died from this illness.  In any sane time, our county’s deaths alone would make national news.  I can see the headlines:  “Crazy chemical spill by Company X causes 47 cancer deaths in 8 months and the FBI has put the CEO behind bars.”

But it’s not a sane time, and our county is not even close to the hardest hit in Wisconsin or America.   

Now that there’s a vaccine and we’ve voted the main culprit behind this unnecessary massacre out of office, there’s nothing we can do now but make sure the historical record of what happened is correct so we can try not to repeat our missteps and save more lives the next time a virus gets out of control.

I could go through the month-to-month shift that happened in my town of Minocqua from March 17, the day all “non-essential businesses” were forced to shut down in Wisconsin, but this shift could mostly be summarized as follows:  Those that listened to conservative rhetoric didn’t think the virus was serious, and became very vocal about reopening businesses and saving our economy.  Those that listened to our mainstream media and the experts in epidemiology believed the death toll numbers, kept avoiding public places, and were appalled when they saw packed bars and no masks.

History will also note that the virus wasn’t too bad over the summer in Minocqua, probably because we were able to socially distance together outside instead of inside.

However, two things happened in Minocqua this summer that I’ll never forget as a businessman in the town.

First, rumor spread that a bunch of the Min-Aqua Bats, Minocqua’s waterski troupe, and arguably our main tourist attraction, got Covid.   Regardless of whether that's true or not, they did shut down their performances for the summer, and around the same time, the last weekend in July, a slew of restaurants, including my own, had employees test positive for Covid.  

Most of us shut down so our other employees could get tested and those exposed could quarantine, and some didn’t.  The Minocqua Brewing Company closed for 4 days and I estimate we lost about $30k in revenue because it was the peak time of the high season.

Second, Governor Evers issued a mask mandate on July 30, because only a patchwork of Wisconsin counties had mask mandates and others did not (like Oneida County), and logically given increased summer holiday travel, unless the whole state started wearing masks, it would have been impossible to control the spread.  Immediately after our Governor issued the mandate, the Oneida County Sheriff's Department and the Minocqua Police Department issued a strongly-worded letter saying they refused to enforce the mandate. 

Both of these events are etched in my memory because I can’t help but wonder that had the Town of Minocqua passed a mask mandate in early July, and if everyone had followed it, might we have not had that big burst of cases that shut many restaurants down?

I also can’t help but question the sanity of Minocqua’s police department, after seeing so many of Minocqua’s restaurants close down at once due to Covid, refusing to enforce a mask mandate that in theory could help all of us better avoid Covid and stay open.

In my view, both the inaction of our Town Board to address Covid in any way, and the action of or Police Department to refuse to enforce the mask mandate, hurt Minocqua’s tourist economy.

I hope that once we’re a year or so removed from Trump and the anger of this election subsides, this synopsis will be the commonly accepted history of our town's Summer of 2020 instead of just the Democratic one.

Fast forward to today.  As expected with the cold weather, numbers in Wisconsin got out of control and more people died.  The HEROES Act, which would have continued to offer financial help to states, small businesses, and the unemployed, was passed in June by our Democratic majority in Congress but was stalled by Republican Mitch McConnell before the election.  He made it a political football when small businesses and working people desperately needed help, and as of today that help has still not arrived.

At this point, I can’t blame restaurants and bars for breaking the capacity limits set to reduce the spread of Covid.  They now have no other choice because they didn’t get enough support from their government months ago to keep them whole.  At some point they’ve got families to feed and rents to pay too.

As I’ve said from Day 1, there didn’t have to be a choice between opening our economy and stopping the spread of Covid. Had the federal government stepped in to help non-essential small businesses financially after the CARES Act money ran dry, while at the same time shutting them down until we had fewer cases or a vaccine, we would have gotten through this with fewer deaths and small business bankruptcies.

And we can’t blame Tony Evers for shutting down restaurants and bars. He’s at least trying to offset the pain by offering $20K small business grants, but the state doesn’t have the kind of money needed to prop up these industries—Wisconsin is similarly waiting on financial relief from the Feds.  
So where am I going with this?  

I’m not happy with how our Town Board and our Police Department handled Covid this summer. I’m not sure the Town Board had the power to actually mandate mask wearing in our town, or whether that would be solely County’s jurisdiction.  But I do know, given the board’s conservative makeup, that they never would have done it. 

While running for State Assembly, I constantly mentioned that the Northwoods needed to become more progressive locally to actually make positive change in our communities, because the gerrymandered Assembly and Senate districts made it hopeless to have fair state elections up here.  I also offered financial help to any progressives who wanted to run for Town Board positions this spring.  
It turns out that that there are quite a few progressives running in surrounding towns, and I can’t wait to support them, but as of last week, I haven’t heard of any progressives running in Minocqua yet.

I was recently at a meeting meant to recruit town board candidates, and was asked “Why don’t you run?  How can you expect anyone else to run if you won’t do it yourself?”  

I didn’t have a response to that question, and it has been weighing on me ever since.

So, if you’ve made it this far in my very long post, I’m hereby announcing I’m running for Minocqua Town Board, and that I need to get 100 signatures turned in by January 5 to do so. If you’d like to sign my nomination form and live in the Town of Minocqua, please email me at [email protected], and I’ll send you the form with instructions on how to fill it out and where to mail it back.

Let’s do this Minocqua.


Written by Kirk Bangstad on 12/19/20

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