John Lowry vacationed in Door County, Wis., when he was a child. He loved it so much that 30 years ago he moved there. It’s not in his nature to tell people who share his fondness for what he calls “the Cape Cod of the Midwest” to please just stay away.
Mr. Lowry has always supported the rights of property owners, and generally believes in freedom from too much government interference. He once registered as a Republican, but now considers himself “a conservative liberal or a liberal conservative.” He knows Door County’s vacation homeowners pay property taxes and should be able to enjoy their homes. But these are extraordinary times.
On a recent morning, Mr. Lowry, 79, the chairman of the town board in the Door County community of Liberty Grove, sat down and wrote a message unlike any other he’s ever delivered to this community that thrives because of its two million visitors each year.
“If you have a seasonal home in Liberty Grove, please stay at your winter homes at this time,” said the advisory that was posted to the town website.
“It’s difficult to tell somebody to please don’t come,” he wrote. “But under this circumstance, it doesn’t make sense for anybody.”
As the coronavirus quickly spreads across the nation’s urban centers, local leaders in some rural areas — who prize their independent, conservative values that tend toward a live-and-let-live attitude — are taking actions that contradict their ethos in order to keep the virus away.
Like Door County, a peninsula that juts between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, many communities are setting up new rules aimed at sealing off borders to part-time residents, part of a patchwork of regulations about which businesses can remain open and under what circumstances citizens are allowed to be out of their homes.
Fear is driving many of these decisions.
Some officials have anguished over their actions, chiefly because they go against the beliefs of their communities.
In New York’s Catskills region, residents still complain about government moves decades ago to seize land surrounding a key watershed. Yet fearful of the virus’s spread, a handful of rural counties have issued bluntly worded orders for second homeowners to stay away.
“We are a very strong property rights county,” said Shelly Johnson-Bennett, the planning and watershed affairs director for Delaware County, N.Y. “But we’re really trying to get people to understand how dire this is. We don’t want anyone to die.”
Door County officials decided last week to declare a public emergency for the interconnected web of communities that is home to about 27,000 full-time residents scattered across the 80-mile-long peninsula. The county had not yet registered any infections, but the declaration freed up resources in case people started getting sick.
Cars with out-of-state license plates were showing up in the little towns across the county where shops were still boarded up for the winter. Hundreds of vehicles, one county official said.
People started joking about shutting down access to bridges that lead to the northern part of the peninsula. As the days passed, the jokes turned serious with texts and emails sent to officials calling for checkpoints at the county borders to block anyone with out-of-state drivers’ licenses from entering. People were getting scared.
“We are trying to protect our own, if you will,” said David Lienau, chairman of the Door County board of supervisors.
That meant protecting Door County from people like Jennifer Miller LaRiccia who, her whole life, has considered herself one of Door County’s own.
Ms. LaRiccia’s remote, three-bedroom cabin in an unincorporated spot called Whitefish Bay has been in her family since 1926, when her great-grandfather tacked the tamarack logs together himself to craft the rustic two-story structure with a stone fireplace and vaulted ceilings. She spent childhood summers there, taking dips in the chilly lake and walking barefoot along pine cone-lined roads.
She lives in Bay Village, Ohio, a far western suburb of Cleveland, but visits her cabin every year in early May to open it for renters, blocking off two weeks for herself and her family over Memorial Day. She returns in October for alone time.
The cabin’s seclusion in the middle of bushy trees and steps away from an empty stretch of beach has always been part of its allure — but now, in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s more appealing than ever.
Earlier this month, coronavirus had yet to hit Cleveland hard, but Ms. LaRiccia believed it was coming. Her city, with its world-class hospitals, was bound to lure patients seeking care. Families of those patients would get sick. Health care workers would fall ill. Infections would spread. It was just a matter of time.
Ms. LaRiccia wanted to get out. But this past week as she was thinking of fleeing to her vacation home, Mr. Lowry in Liberty Grove, about a 30-minute drive from Ms. LaRiccia’s cabin, was getting increasingly worried.
Most of Mr. Lowry’s neighbors were taking the outbreak seriously. Schools had closed. Officials had canceled a half marathon to prevent disease spread. Hotels had canceled reservations through at least April. The city of Jacksonport even canceled Maifest, a decades-old event on Memorial Day weekend with an art fair, funnel cakes and kolaches that traditionally kicks off the summer season.
Mr. Lowry felt like he should be doing more. He knew older residents are more at risk of death from the virus, and like him, most of his neighbors are senior citizens. Many people are in Door County, where the median age of residents is 52.
The nearby community of Sister Bay was having an emergency meeting, and Mr. Lowry decided to attend to see if he could glean ideas to come up with better solutions.
What he heard rattled him.
Health officials said the main hospital had capacity for 25 patients and could surge up to only about 50 if needed. Just four intensive care beds were available. Nurses had been beckoned to staff a local hotline that was being inundated with worried callers. The manager of the local Piggly Wiggly, one of a few grocery stores on the tip of the peninsula, talked about difficulties securing five pallets of toilet paper to alleviate a shortage.
“Wow,” Mr. Lowry kept thinking to himself as he listened. “What can we do to protect our residents?”
He thought about his own values, and how foreign it would be to tell people to stay away from their own property. He had voted for President Trump in 2016, the same as the majority of other residents of Door County. The county voted Republican up and down the ballot. He was a homeowner and even owned an art gallery and home accessories store. How did any of that measure against a deadly virus?
His town board was meeting the following night, but Mr. Lowry decided officials needed to take immediate action. He wrote the advisory telling second homeowners to stay away, and notified the ones who had already arrived that they should self-isolate for 14 days.
Other communities followed and the county itself issued a new, strongly worded advisory with similar pleadings. Even the state chimed in, with the governor later in the week telling residents to avoid travel of any kind.
Back in Ohio, Ms. LaRiccia was scrolling through Facebook when the admonitions to stay away from Door County popped up. Commenters were starting to bicker.
She considered the tension that sometimes arose between full-time and seasonal residents. The people who came from Chicago and Milwaukee with their big-city lifestyles. They were young. They sometimes got rowdy. Hoping to separate herself from that crowd, she had always invited full-time resident neighbors each October for poetry readings and chili soup lunches.
Ms. LaRiccia started to get angry about officials telling her she couldn’t visit her own home. She pays her taxes and shops locally when she visits. Her family has been on the peninsula longer than most people who live there now. Vacationers like her have poured millions of dollars into the county’s economy.
“Maybe some of us wanted to get away and come up there,” she said.
But then she thought about the full-time residents. They were scared. And really, does anyone know how best to stop the spread of this pandemic? Ms. LaRiccia decided to stay home.
“It’s the right thing to do for our country and it’s our personal responsibility to do what’s necessary to stop this virus,” she said. “Even if we don’t understand it.”