‘This has been the year of worry’: Wisconsin tourism businesses are concerned with Chicago’s new travel restrictions

Since Friday, anyone traveling from Wisconsin to Chicago is required to quarantine for 14 days

The decision by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 as Wisconsin’s case numbers spike. But some Wisconsin business owners worry the policy could diminish tourism, dealing yet another blow to the struggling economy.

Lake Geneva  is well-known as a destination for Chicagoans who want to escape the city for some Wisconsin lake views. But according to the travel order, any Chicagoans who travel to Wisconsin would need to self-quarantine for 14 days upon return.

Stephanie Klett — who served as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism from 2011 to 2019 — now markets the resort town to potential tourists in her role as the president and CEO of Visit Lake Geneva.

Klett said she’s still not certain how Lightfoot’s travel order will impact the city’s businesses.

“It’s really going to take a couple of weeks to know how hard or not it’s going to hit us,” she said.

RELATED:As Wisconsin reopens, resort town fills with people who appear to be ‘just kind of done with it all’

Although many of Lake Geneva’s visitors are from the Chicago area, not all live within city limits. A great deal of tourists come from the surrounding Chicago suburbs, Klett said, where Lightfoot’s order does not apply.

Bill Gage, president of Gage Marine and Lake Geneva Cruise Line, said his boat tour and restaurant business has suffered during the pandemic.

Gage said he’s taken many steps to implement social distancing and hygiene protocols in his businesses. He added that many Lake Geneva businesses have taken precautions to lower the spread of COVID-19.

“I think we’re all being quite responsible,” he said. “I work with a lot of different people in hospitality and tourism and we deeply care about our staff, about our guests and about our community.”

Gage expressed frustration about Lightfoot’s travel order. Elected officials, he said, should allow individuals to evaluate risk for themselves and vote with their feet.

“We’re all doing thoughtful things. Trust people to make good decisions,” he said.

But many Lake Geneva hotels have seen a steady demand, even after the announcement of the new travel order.

When Lightfoot first announced that Wisconsin would be added to Chicago’s quarantine list, Klett said she reached out to hotel owners to see how they were being impacted.

At first, she said, many Chicago tourists began calling and canceling their room reservations. But within a couple days, those rooms were booked again.

“As fast as it hit them — immediately — it turned around,” she said.

Tammie Carstensen, general manager of Harbor Shores Hotel in Lake Geneva, said the demand has remained for her hotel, despite the pandemic and the travel orders.

Quarantine and lockdowns have made many tourists crave a getaway, Klett believes.

“I think people want to get away now more than they ever have in years,” Klett said.

Despite her business’s relative success this season, Carstensen said she believes Lightfoot’s travel restrictions are unfair — forcing Wisconsin businesses to confront even more uncertainty in a turbulent time.

“Everybody’s going to be worried about what’s next. I mean, this has been the year of worry,” Carstensen said.

Tourism, Klett said, is essential for many mom-and-pop businesses in Lake Geneva.

“That’s why we encourage people to travel, because so many of these businesses are small businesses and they make their hay in the summer, so this is a really important time for them,” she said.

Almost 200 miles north, in Door County, the county’s visitor bureau Destination Door County has been planning for the potential fallout.

Jon Jarosh, Destination Door County’s director of communications, said it’s too soon to tell what impact the order will have on the county’s businesses. 

“Our hope is that with any cancellations that may come as a result, is that our lodging community can rebook with other folks,” Jarosh said. “There still seems to be strong demand for housing. It is peak season. We’ve still been pretty busy this year.”

Strong public health messaging has become essential to Door County’s tourism industry. 

“Regardless of where somebody is coming from when they visit here, our message is the same in terms of precautions and being a responsible traveler in today’s world. Wear a mask, wash your hands and practice social distancing,” Jarosh said.

RELATED:‘Everybody is really looking to escape’ as summer tourism destinations fill up with visitors

Jarosh hopes those messages will allow the county’s businesses to thrive.

“While we’re welcoming people, we’re also asking them to travel responsibly and hopefully that’ll allow us to keep welcoming visitors without interruption,” he said.