If you live in the woods, or better yet on a river or lake in the woods, you might be able to shelter in place on your own property and hike, fish or hunt to your heart's content, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But if you plan on traveling any distance to get outdoors this spring, you might be breaking the law. And, increasingly, destination outdoor areas are asking visitors to stay away.
Health care and government officials have been urging people to get outside and shake off the COVID-19 blues for both our mental and physical health. But with some states already imposing “shelter in place,’’ "no unnecessary travel" orders, and Wisconsin on Tuesday imposing a “Safer at Home’’ order, it’s less clear whether travel for recreation will still be allowed in the spring of COVID-19.
Is going fishing, or hiking, necessary travel?
How confusing is the situation? The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday announced it was waiving all fees in state parks to encourage use — at nearly the same minute that the governor’s office released the few reasons people would be allowed to leave their homes under the "Safer at Home" order. Outdoor recreation is not listed as an allowable reason.
“Individuals do not need special permission to leave their homes, but they must comply with this order as to when it is permissible to leave home,'' the state noted. While travel for medical reasons, to obtain supplies and visit relatives or friends in need of help are listed as permissible, travel for recreational purposes is not.
Sarah Hoye, communications director for the Wisconsin DNR, tried to clarify the situation.
"The intent of all this is for people to stay as close to home as possible. Stay in your community. Walk to the park, or if you have to, drive to the closest park. But don't drive across the state to go to a park. That’s not acceptable," Hoye said.
Hoye said there is no strict definition of how big a "community" is, but said that if you have to drive far to get there, or drive from another state, "that’s not your community."
The restrictions could threaten travel to the Brule River trout fishing opener for many anglers Saturday, March 28, as well as shed hunting for antlers; mushroom picking; spring turkey hunting that starts across northern Minnesota in mid-April; and even the Minnesota walleye fishing opener May 9, just over seven weeks away.
No one can say how long public gathering and travel restrictions will be in place, or how much more restrictive they might become.
Here’s what we know so far:
On Monday, the City Council in Baudette, Minn., voted in special session to close city boat landings within the city on the Rainy River, a popular early-spring walleye and sturgeon fishing spot, just as the river was about to open up for anglers. The move was taken to discourage anglers from gathering at boat landings and to discourage large numbers of travelers coming into the area in the coming weeks.
The Koochiching County Board followed suit Tuesday in a teleconference meeting jointly with the Lake of the Woods County Board, closing county boat landings and parking lots and four county parks along the Rainy River as commissioners fear an onslaught of COVID-19-infected anglers coming north. "People are scared and people are mad," Lake of the Woods County Commissioner John Waibel said. "People have to understand, it’s not that we don’t want them here. We just don’t want an influx here now."
Bayfield County on Sunday issued a formal notice not just to tourists, but also property owners who had been away: Don’t come back; stay where you are. "Please do not visit us now,’’ the county urged. Ashland and Sawyer countries issued similar notices. St. Louis County commissioners on Monday talked about the issue, too. County officials say the medical infrastructure in smaller communities simply can’t handle a massive infusion of newly sick people.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials this week said they would not open sharptail grouse spring viewing blinds as usual even though the blinds are in remote, rural areas and hold only two people at a time. As recently as last week, DNR field staff had hoped to keep those viewing areas open to the public.
The Wisconsin DNR has closed all state campgrounds, including those in the Brule River State Forest, and is not allowing camping or any overnight parking in any areas of the forest. So far, local DNR officials say parking areas along the river intended for anglers will remain open for the trout fishing season that starts Saturday.
Minnesota and Wisconsin state parks remain technically open, as do state trails, but no buildings are open. Officials in both states said they will try to keep most bathrooms open in parks if possible.
Veteran steelhead angler and guide Scott Thorpe of Minneapolis on Tuesday posted on Facebook that he won't fish the Brule opener Saturday, or on any other rivers this spring, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This would have been 50 consecutive years, slipping into the water at daybreak to make my first cast'' on the Brule, Thorpe posted, saying he's been wrestling with the decision for weeks. "Do I think the threat is real? Of course. Do I think people should stop traveling for non-essential purposes? Yes. Well, is fishing really essential, really? No. I can miss one season. It’s the right thing to do."
Minnesota conservation officers and others reported seeing large numbers of people gathered in large groups for ice fishing and snowmobiling activities this past weekend, seemingly oblivious to the pleading of health officials to isolate. Officially the Minnesota DNR says people are still welcome to travel to public outdoor places, if they practice social distancing, even as the Minnesota Department of Transportation posted photos of an empty freeway on social media, urging people not to travel.
"We did see an uptick in visitation at our state parks over the weekend. … If people come to a park and it’s very busy or the parking lot is full, we encourage people to try another facility — a regional, city or county park, for instance," said Chris Niskanen, communications director for the Minnesota DNR. "People should also consider picking a park close to home. Rural communities may feel the burden of outdoor enthusiasts and resources may be scarcer."
If the restrictions linger into May, the implications of travel restrictions get more complicated. The Wisconsin general fishing opener is May 2; the Minnesota fishing opener is May 9. And fishing on the opener is generally not a solitary affair. Of Minnesota’s roughly 1 million anglers each year, nearly half are in many years believed to hit the water on opening weekend. That means a lot of people gathering at crowded boat landings, bait shops, cabins, lodges, gas stations and stores even if bars and restaurants are still closed.
In addition to Wisconsin’s Safer at Home policy, at least 13 other states have issued travel restrictions, or stay at home orders: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Washington and West Virginia. (Wisconsin county officials have suggested that any Illinois resident who drives into Wisconsin would be breaking Illinois law.)
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Monday said a "shelter-in-place" order may be coming soon, although it remains unclear what that will mean.
"No one here in this administration is taking lightly the economic chaos that will come out of this,’’ Walz said Monday of potentially more restrictive business and travel restrictions.
The fishing opener and Memorial Day weekend are some of the biggest money-making days of the year for the outdoor-focused segments of the state’s tourism industry, a multi-billion economic engine in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It’s not just resort owners and bait shops, it’s the girl who sells jerky in the convenience store and the woman who tends bar at the lodge and the guy who cooks breakfast at the cafe in every small town near a lake.
In the state’s most fishing-focused north central region, many of those businesses already faced a devastating winter where ice anglers stayed away in droves due to impassable conditions on the frozen lakes. A slow start to summer, or no start at all, would be financial ruin for some.
"I don't even want to think that far out yet. Those are the two biggest weekends (the fishing opener and Memorial Day) for us and, if we lose them, oh boy, a lot of places wouldn't make it,'' said Jack Shriver, a fishing guide, bait shop owner and owner of a Subway restaurant in Walker, Minnesota. "Let's just hope for everyone's sake it doesn't last that long."
Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald contributed to this story.
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