During a special meeting of the Lake of the Woods County Board on Friday morning, concerns with large numbers of tourists (mostly anglers) coming to the area at a time when people are being told to stay at home as much as possible in light of the COVID-19 pandemic was addressed.
Anger has been growing on social media outlets in the last several days as evidenced by posts from many Lake of Woods County residents. Many are expressing fear and anger knowing so many people are descending on the area to get in on the final days of ice fishing, with concerns of even more anglers showing up in the coming weeks. As the Rainy River thaws, there are traditionally hundreds, if not thousands, of anglers that head north to take advantage of the final weeks of walleye fishing.
Representatives of CHI LakeWood Health in Baudette were on hand for the board meeting and stated that people from outside the area traveling here during this time is also one of their biggest concerns.
“We are very concerned about tourism. They are still coming here. We have concerns of them buying up supplies that could be purchased by locals or one or more of them getting sick and needing to be hospitalized here, taking up a bed that could be used by a local person,” said Jenny Loughrey, Infection Control and Employee Health Coordinator at CHI LakeWood Health.
There was plenty of concern and even some anger expressed at efforts by Lake of the Woods Tourism to encourage people to come to the area at this time.
Friday morning, a post from Lake of the Woods Tourism was promoting fishing as “cheap psychology.” That is probably a true statement and many officials are encouraging people to get out for a walk and take part in other outdoors activities while practicing social distancing. The concern though is that those posts were also promoting Lake of the Woods and many of those people traveling from other areas of the state to this area are from counties where there are confirmed cases of the coronavirus. It’s very likely they will also stop and interact with residents at gas stations, bottle shops, grocery stores, lodging facilties and restaurants that are offering to-go options.
Emergency Management Director Jill Olson reported that she had reached out to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources asking if there were any plans to shut down the fishing season and was told there wasn’t.
She was also told that the season could only be shut down by legislative action at the state level or by an Executive Order from Governor Walz.
All present agreed that this issue is unique to Lake of the Woods as it is one of the only places that still attract a large customer base at the end of the winter season and the early spring season.
“Someone needs to talk to the Tourism Bureau about encouraging people to come here,” said Lake of the Woods County Attorney Jim Austad.
“People who come up here might come up here anyway, but we don’t need to be promoting it at this time,” said Commissioner Jon Waibel.
“It’s irresponsible,” said Commissioner Cody Hasbargen of the Tourism’s Bureau’s current efforts to encourage traffic to Lake of the Woods.
“Can you have that discussion with Joe?” asked Waibel of Commissioner Ed Arnesen, who was attending the meeting via phone conference. Waibel was referring to Joe Henry, Executive Director of Lake of the Woods Tourism.
“Yes,” Arnesen responded.
“Tell him to go radio silent for a while,” suggesteded Commissioner Joe Grund.
Before the meting ended, Hasbargen told the board that he had received a call during the meeting from Commissioner Skoe from Koochiching County.
Skoe was reaching out and requested a phone conference meeting with the Lake of the Woods County Board to discuss their concerns with the spring fishing season and influx of people expected. As the river opens from east to west, many of the public accesses that anglers flock to first are in Koochiching County.
That call-in joint meeting will take place during next Tuesday’s regular county board meeting.