By Sam Stroozas
“I believe in it, I just don’t think it’s that bad,” said a man waiting for entry into a packed and mask-less restaurant on Second Street in Hudson, Wisconsin on a busy Friday night. There were no parking spots left, groups strutted out of vehicles quickly at red lights; mask-less and on a mission. By 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 18, almost 600 cars with Minnesota license plates lined the streets of this quaint suburb.
Hudson, located in St. Croix County, is only 18 miles from St. Paul, Minnesota. – making it the perfect border town escape for Minnesota residents who want to dine and drink inside, as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has issued an executive order for bars, restaurants and breweries to remain closed for indoor services until Jan. 11. St Croix County had a total of 6,482 COVID-19 cases and 28 deaths as of Dec. 30, with 11 current hospitalizations and 20% of COVID-19 tests coming out positive.
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 the phenomenon has put more stress on Hudson, as city leaders describe it, since they have few city-level COVID-19 regulations, an under-staffed public health department and high infection rates.
Additionally, Hudson has seen crime spike in a usually low-crime town including the stabbing of three individuals resulting in one death, robberies, car-jackings, and more. City leaders attribute the increased crime to the influx of out-of-state revelers. The Hudson police department has been vocal on their Facebook page informing residents of the recent crime and enlisting the help of witnesses.
Hudson police Chief Geoff Willems explained in an email that the increase of crime is attributed to those coming to Hudson after 10 p.m. “People were showing up at 11 p.m., 12 a.m., and 1 a.m. to simply cause issues. It was a very different crowd and not the crowd that usually hang out in Hudson, which led to serious problems,” he said.
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.
All residents but one 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 rates and improve public safety.
On Dec. 8 the city council unanimously passed the curfew ordinance, which took effect Dec. 11, though it will expire on Jan. 3, and Hudson residents fear a resurgence of problems then.
At the Dec. 8 council meeting, Willems said that there is “a different type of crowd” that comes to the downtown Hudson bar scene after 10 p.m. and that 80-90% of calls after 10 p.m. have been about crimes. He also said resources have been stretched in the city, even with “mutual aid” — law enforcement from other towns — being called in to deal with the increase of robberies, assaults and inebriated people laying in the streets.
On Dec.18, one week after the curfew ordinance was passed, Willems said: “There are 3.5 million people right across the river that have no place to go and nothing to do – they are coming to Hudson because of that.”
Joyce Hall, Hudson common council member for District 6, was in attendance for both of the council meetings, and shared that her main concern for the city is public safety.
“Things do escalate after 10 p.m.,” Hall said. “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.”
Since the curfew ordinance has been enacted, Willems said downtown has remained busy but there have been “no real problems.”
Hall has pushed for the county to adopt a mask ordinance and other measures in keeping with CDC guidelines. A mask ordinance for the county was proposed in November but did not pass.
Although Hall receives some supportive emails from constituents, she has also received many telling her “how wrong she is” and that she should be “ashamed” of herself, she said.
Regardless of these messages, Hall said she believes the city should pass a mask ordinance since the county has not done so.
Kelli Engen, the public health officer for St. Croix County, said she firmly believes that masks should be worn by residents and visitors, along with keeping a minimum of six feet from people who do not live in the same household and staying home when sick.
“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.”
Compared to other public health departments in Wisconsin counties, Engen shared that St. Croix County health and human services department is “unbelievably understaffed.” There are only 17 full-time employees for a county of almost 100,000 residents; while other counties with similarly sized jurisdictions, 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 and the number two source is community-acquired spread, Engen said, and a large number of cases of people in St. Croix County who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic.
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. She has written over 50 letters of support for businesses if they applied to grants and created virtual seminars on how to build an online presence and other common issues.
Potter said that the surge of Minnesota residents Hudson is currently experiencing also happened in May when Hudson was re-opened, and Minnesota was still closed. She has received some calls from Hudson businesses concerned about others downtown who have not taken the same safety precautions.
“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 last 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.
All of the bars and restaurants in downtown Hudson were contacted for this article. As of Jan. 2, every bar or restaurant located downtown either declined to comment or did not respond to requests. Some establishments were intrigued but feared experiencing backlash from neighboring bars and restaurants or city and county officials if they participated.
The Purple Tree, a sustainable and social justice-focused business located on Second Street is in the midst of the downtown bar scene. Owner Sarah Bruch has seen first-hand the “tension” increase among businesses, the rise of crimes and the lack of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Purple Tree runs at 25% capacity, only allowing six customers in at a time, and requires masks. Starting when the temperatures dropped in Minnesota and outdoor dining was no longer a feasible option, residents came to Hudson for the luxury of indoor dining and shopping.
“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” for the Purple Tree on these busy weekends because of the large crowds. On one occasion a family pushed past her brother-in-law and told Bruch “they did not care about the capacity or masks.”
“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.”
Bruch said that as a downtown business owner, she feels comfortable with the culture some businesses are creating, but hesitant to support others who are not following CDC guidelines. She acknowledged she is not a bar or restaurant owner, so her perspective may differ, but still, she hopes that bars and restaurants see public health as “a top priority instead of a political issue.”
Bruch usually walks home from work alone, but no longer feels like she or her employees are safe doing so because of the increase in crime. The Purple Tree has scaled back their hours and Bruch’s husband now comes to walk her home if it is dark out after her shift.
“I never thought this would be the case in this beautiful place to live,” Bruch said.
Sam Stroozas is an investigative reporter and covers social justice issues at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @samstroozas.