On the crowded streets of downtown Hudson, Wisconsin, after sunset on a Friday in December, a man could be overheard as he waited in a huddle to get into Agave Kitchen: “I believe in it, I just don’t think it’s that bad,” he said loudly, confident in his chances against COVID-19.
There were no parking spots to be had. Groups jumped out of vehicles quickly at red lights — mask-less and on a mission. By 7:30 p.m., almost 600 cars with Minnesota license plates lined the streets of this quaint bedroom community.
Hudson, located in St. Croix County, is only 18 miles from St. Paul — the perfect border town for Minnesotans who want to escape the tight coronavirus regulations imposed by Gov. Tim Walz, who only allowed restaurants to open again this week, but with a raft of regulations intended to prevent the spread of the virus.
Hudson currently does not have any capacity limits on indoor dining or restrictions such as social distancing or mask mandates. Other border towns separating Minnesota and Wisconsin have likewise become destinations for Minnesotans, but city leaders say the phenomenon has put more stress on Hudson because they have few citywide COVID-19 regulations, an under-staffed public health department and high infection rates. St. Croix County has had nearly 7,000 confirmed cases.
Hudson’s struggle illustrates the dangers of not having a national strategy — vastly divergent policies in neighboring states have created a crisis for some border towns. The more “open” states have been inundated with visitors, while states with tighter restrictions like Minnesota have seen residents visit high-infection areas in other states and bring the coronavirus back with them.
The normally low-key Hudson has also seen a rise in crime, including the stabbing of three people, resulting in one death, as well as robberies, car-jackings and other mayhem. In something of a reversal of the normal order of things, this time Wisconsites are accusing Minnesotans of being unruly derelicts. The Hudson Police Department has been vocal on their Facebook page about recent crime and enlisting the help of witnesses.
Joyce Hall, who is on the Hudson Common Council, said things were getting ugly late night.
“There were calls downtown and at the hotel rooms in town because of rowdy behavior. People are drinking during the day, and it’s disgusting when families go down to Lakefront Park and find people vomiting and blood all over the sidewalk,” she said.
Hudson police Chief Geoff Willems laid the blame squarely on Twin Cities metro residents: “There are 3.5 million people right across the river that have no place to go and nothing to do,” he said.
For some retail stores, the increased foot traffic has come with a downside. The Purple Tree sells specialty foods and gifts with a focus on sustainability on Second Street amid the downtown bar scene. Owner Sarah Bruch has seen first-hand the “tension,” as she calls it, that has risen among businesses operating without firm COVID-19 rules.
The Purple Tree allows just six customers in at a time and requires masks. When the temperatures dropped and Walz shuttered the restaurants, residents came to Hudson for indoor dining and shopping, she said.
“We saw a huge influx of Minnesota residents coming downtown,” Bruch said. “For every 10 cars you saw, only one or two had Wisconsin license plates.”
Bruch enlisted her brother-in-law as a “sort-of bouncer” on these busy weekends because of the crowds. On one occasion a family pushed past her brother-in-law and mocked the store rules.
“When they were in the store, they poked fun at us, they didn’t wear masks or honor our other rules,” she said. “We knew if we called the police, they would leave by the time they got here, and we did not want them to deal with something like this when there are more pressing issues in the community.”
City takes a stand, but still no masks
On Dec. 7, the Hudson Common Council held a virtual meeting where residents voiced fears about rising crime and the increased tourism from Minnesotans during the pandemic.
Residents spoke in favor of proposed city ordinances requiring masks and forcing Hudson bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, to reduce crime and improve public health.
The Common Council unanimously passed the curfew ordinance, which expired but was recently reinstated.
Hall, the Common Council member, has pushed for the county to adopt a mask ordinance and other measures in keeping with guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A county mask ordinance was proposed in November but did not pass.
Although some constituents told Hall she’s right to push for masks, others lashed out at her, telling her she should be “ashamed” of herself, she said.
Kelli Engen, the public health officer for St. Croix County, said the county should adopt a mask mandate and follow other public health guidelines like social distancing, which for the most part means staying out of bars and restaurants.
“If a mask ordinance would have been put into effect late summer and compliance with masking was high, we might not have seen such a spike in November,” she said. “When something local is put into place there is a potential for more adherence, but there is a vocal group in St. Croix County that really sees all of this [CDC guidelines] as an infringement on their personal rights.”
St. Croix is home to just 17 full-time public health workers for a county of almost 100,000 residents. Similarly sized counties have almost four times as many public health staff members, Engen said.
The number one source of infection in St. Croix County is household contact, though the second is community-acquired spread, Engen said.
Balancing business with safety
Since March 17, when bars and restaurants in Wisconsin had to close temporarily, Mary Claire Olson Potter, the president of the Hudson Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau, has been working with local businesses to keep them afloat.
Potter said that the surge of Minnesotans is a repeat of May, when Hudson was re-opened while Minnesota remained shut down. She has received some calls from Hudson businesses concerned about others downtown that have not taken safety precautions seriously, which could lead to closure for everyone.
“They’ll say, ‘So and so haven’t done anything and they’re packed,’ or that they don’t want to get shut down again because others are not doing their part,” Potter said.
Potter has been impressed by the resilience of business owners in the past 10 months, but she is still concerned that some are not requiring masks or social distancing.
“It’s a really hard balance because you want all of the businesses to survive, but you want them to survive safely,” she said.
Bruch, the owner of Purple Tree, usually walks home from work alone, but no longer feels like she or her employees are safe doing so. The Purple Tree has scaled back their hours and Bruch’s husband now comes to walk her home if it is dark after her shift.
“I never thought this would be the case in this beautiful place to live,” Bruch said.