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Frustration Grows as COVID-19 Cases Continue to Rise in Rural Counties


Governor Tony Evers is urging people to go into a self-imposed lockdown.

Many of his orders with COVID-19 restrictions have been challenged in court and successfully struck down

As politicians make their arguments, COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in Wisconsin.  

Billy Heath is one of many restaurant owners running out of options.

“We’ve been struggling,” said Heath.

He’s the owner, operator, and jack of all trades, as he puts it, of the Birchwood Lodge and Tavern in Rhinelander.

Like many people, Heath has been keeping an eye on the COVID-19 cases in the Northwoods.

“Through the summer we were very encouraged because business was great, and the numbers really weren’t rapidly increasing. We figured it was relatively safe to continue to do business as usual,” said Heath.

Then Heath saw the numbers rising. He made the decision to go to carry out only in early October.

“Requiring masks in here is really not a realistic option. I mean people come here to eat and drink. Masks are going to be a really difficult thing for us to enforce.  Also, it’s not a very big space, period, so social distancing is not really an option for us either,” said Heath.

For him, it was a hard choice between being able to pay his bills and protect the health of his family, coworkers, and customers.

“I have a beautiful girlfriend and three kids, and we want to stay healthy, but we also wanted our customers to stay healthy. We also, like I said I’m the owner/operator and pretty much do everything so if I was to contract the illness, I was worried about spend two weeks with no business. The options of having carry out seemed a better option than zero,” said Heath.

But after more than three weeks of carry out only, Health changed course again. He made the difficult decision to reopen to dine-in to keep his business alive.

He says it has been frustrating not having better guidance and support from the government, but he finds it more frustrating that the pandemic has become a political issue rather than a health one.

“Ultimately better guidance would have been great, but I don’t know that anybody have followed it,” said Heath.

He’s not alone in that feeling. Health officials around the state feel that frustration.

“I mean this is not a conservative versus liberal question. SARS-CoV-2 does not have a political affiliation. It’s a national tragedy that this has turned into a political bone of contention,” said Malia Jones. Jones is an epidemiologist and an associate scientist for UW Madison in the Applied Population Lab.

Jones finds the high case rates in rural counties like Oneida County extremely concerning.

“Rural Wisconsin is really doing really badly right now,” said Jones.

She referred to the New York Times list of counties that are hotspots throughout the entire U.S.

“Twenty Wisconsin counties are on that list right now and all 20 of them are rural counties,” said Jones.

Langlade, Florence, Marathon, and Oneida Counties all made the list as of Thursday.

“The age structure in our rural places tends to be much older. There are a lot of high-risk people there and I’m worried,” said Jones.

Jones was so worried that a day after our conversation she sent WXPR some math on the potential impact of COVID-19 on Oneida County.

If everyone in Oneida County contracted the virus, 7.5 percent of the population would be at risk of hospitalization, based on age alone.

Regional hospitals have nowhere near that amount of total beds, let alone currently free beds.

Furthermore, based on age, 2.5 percent of the county’s population is at risk of death.

That’s 892 friends and neighbors.

Of course, not everyone will get the virus, but Jones says that makes the situation no less dire.

“I’m really concerned about what’s happening in rural Wisconsin,” said Jones.

It’s a concerned shared by many, including Billy Heath.

“I’ve been a little bit shocked at the behavior of people here. Whatever side of this thing you land on. It should be a health issue. It shouldn’t be about your neighbors vote or any of this stuff. I wish we could treat this as a health issue,” said Heath.

Heath says he’s not a doctor or a politician, but he hopes some change will come to bring the community together to fight the virus.

“We’re all part of this community. We’re all people trying to live here. We’re all people trying to make a living here. Let’s come together somehow,” said Heath.

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