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Bill Berry: A COVID-19 tale of two jurisdictions

Bill Berry: A COVID-19 tale of two jurisdictions

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Paradegoers are reflected in a storefront window posting a sign for customers to wear face masks before a Fourth of July parade begins Saturday in Bristol, R.I. The town, which lays claim to the nation's oldest Independence Day celebration in the country, held a vehicle-only, scaled-down version of its annual parade.

STEVENS POINT — Here’s a tale of two jurisdictions.

Some good friends have a family cottage on one of the Lac du Flambeau Reservation lakes in Vilas County.

Following a visit to the cottage on a recent July weekend, they drove through the nearby bustling resort community of Minocqua on their way home. They decided to count the number of face masks on the busy sidewalks of the community’s downtown area as they crawled along in traffic. He looked left and saw seven people masked. She looked right and saw six. Hundreds of others were mask-less.

Minocqua is in Oneida County, where 31 COVID-19 cases have been reported. The state rates the current rise of infections in the county as moderately high. The county’s pandemic guidance suggests that people use cloth coverings for their faces, but it’s all voluntary.

Our friends reported that back in Lac du Flambeau, 14 miles northwest of Minocqua, virtually everyone they saw in and around the reservation community and its businesses wore masks. The Lac du Flambeau Band has been cautious throughout the pandemic. Earlier this year, the tribe closed its businesses and public accommodations to visitors. It also required visitors to the reservation to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Our friends reported that during their recent stay, they were able to shop at a favorite store, adhering to the reservation rules for masking in the establishments. Again, they reported what they viewed as 100% compliance.

But there have been exceptions, and one of them received national attention last week in a Newsweek story with video. Newsweek reported that a Wisconsin man repeatedly refused to wear or purchase a mask at the LDF Country Market on July 20. The man attempted to convince employees his shirt, pulled over his face, thus exposing his ample belly, offered enough protection against the spread of the coronavirus. The man argued with store employees, demanding to know their names as they asked him to leave. One finally told him, “You’re on a sovereign nation, if you don't like it, get out." Tribal police were called to remove the man, the LDF Country Market operations manager told Newsweek. The manager said this was not the first time a customer had refused to wear a mask while shopping.

Tribes and bands across the state and upper Midwest have been cautious, erring on the side of safety of tribal members despite taking a huge economic hit at their casinos. The caution is appropriate. Reservations in other states, including New Mexico and Wyoming, have recorded some of the highest infection rates in the country. Wisconsin’s tribal communities acted quickly to mitigate pandemic risk, with most instituting stay-at-home orders and promoting social distancing and use of masks early on. The vigilance has paid off. While Wisconsin reservations have had COVID-19 cases and deaths, there haven’t been sweeping outbreaks.

The tribes have been keeping a close eye on the state’s pandemic response. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in May rejected the extension of Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order. Wisconsin and South Dakota now have the fewest number of pandemic restrictions in the country, according to WalletHub, a personal finance web site. Wisconsin was among 34 states with rising infections as of last Friday. A few state communities have or are attempting to pass mask ordinances, often meeting with angry backlash.

Of course, the state Supreme Court’s action had no direct impact on tribal lands, as the man who caused the disturbance in Lac du Flambeau learned last week.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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