Noah’s Ark closed until further notice after two employees test positive for COVID-19

Noah’s Ark Waterpark, which fired its general manager last month after he called COVID-19 a “phantom China virus” and a proposed mask requirement unconstitutional, closed until further notice Saturday after two employees tested positive for the virus.

The popular Wisconsin Dells attraction announced the decision on its website at www.noahsarkwaterpark.com and said it will be working closely with the Sauk County Health Department and other experts on how to move forward.

“The first and foremost priority of Noah’s Ark is the health and safety of our Guests and Team Members,” the statement said.

The closure came as a statewide mask mandate took effect Saturday and state health officials reported 1,062 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 13 coronavirus-related deaths.

The positive cases account for 7.1% of the 14,858 tests processed since Friday, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Saturday’s cases are the second-highest number reported in the last two weeks, following 1,117 positive cases on July 21.

It was not immediately clear where the Noah’s Ark employees contracted the coronavirus.

The CDC has said there is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread to people through the water in a pool and that proper operation and disinfection of pools should kill the virus that causes COVID-19. 

The company said it has implemented extensive safety precautions for employees and patrons, including temperature checks, requiring face coverings, increased cleaning and disinfection protocols, limiting attendance and promoting social distancing.

It said the park will undergo a thorough cleaning and sanitation on Saturday, and that additional information will be posted as soon as possible.

The park opened on June 20, later than its traditional Memorial Day weekend start, because of concerns about the coronavirus and planned to run through Sept. 7.

Noah’s Ark, which bills itself as the nation’s largest water park, announced in July that General Manager Mark Whitfield was no longer with the company after he sent an email to a Sauk County official downplaying the virus and suggesting the county’s health director be fired.

In the July 20 email to County Supervisor Wally Czuprynko, Whitfield said he had medical and religious objections to the proposed mandate, calling masks “the mark of the beast,” a biblical reference to the anti-Christ. And he likened mask mandates to forcing women to wear hijabs, a type of headscarf worn by Muslim women.

“We cannot allow leftist politicians in Madison and Milwaukee dictate to free citizens in the rest of the state,” he said.

In announcing Whitfield’s departure, Noah’s Ark and its parent company Palace Entertainment said it was committed to complying with local, state and federal guidelines and that Whitfield’s comments did not reflect their own.

The Wisconsin Dells and other areas of the state with higher shares of jobs tied to the tourism industry have been hit hard economically by the coronavirus pandemic.

In April, 14 residents of a Dells dormitory for international student workers tested positive for the virus and had to be quarantined, according to Sauk County officials.

 Contact Annysa Johnson at anjohnson@jrn.com or 414-224-2061. Follow her on Twitter at @JSEdbeat. And join the Journal Sentinel conversation about education issues at www.facebook.com/groups/WisconsinEducation.