Two very different COVID-19 responses produce different economic outcomes in Hudson, WI, and Stillwater, MN

By Kevyn Burger for the Badger Institute

Last year might have been the best of times and the worst of times for Joe Ehlenz, or in a further twist on the Charles Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Restaurants. Both restaurants are called LoLo American Kitchen, and both are anchors of a lively food scene, with innovative cocktails, trendy small plates and entrees.

Both are owned by Ehlenz, one in Hudson, Wisconsin, where he lives, and the other eight miles farther up the St. Croix River, in Stillwater, Minnesota.

In the St. Croix Valley, Hudson and Stillwater have long done business with their common interest in mind. Operators of hotels, marinas, restaurants and boutiques in the two communities have been known to refer tourists to their counterparts on the other side of the river that the communities share.

But twice in 2020, the two LoLos operated under different sets of rules for the hospitality industry set by their states — stoking a community rivalry, a game with a winner and a loser.

After an initial shutdown as COVID-19 hit last year, a mid-May ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court quashed Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order, allowing bars and restaurants like LoLo in Hudson to reopen for in-person dining and drinking.

At the same time, bars and restaurants in Minnesota, like LoLo in Stillwater, offered curbside pickup and takeout but remained closed to guests by order of Gov. Tim Walz. In June, restaurants were allowed to reopen to diners at reduced capacity.

But again, just after Thanksgiving, when Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases were climbing, Walz ordered restaurants to shutter indoor seating (which lasted until January), while Wisconsin’s bars and restaurants stayed open.

“It was a crazy time,” Ehlenz says. “In Hudson, every weekday was like a weekend day. My parking lot was packed. When the Stillwater LoLo closed for inside dining, our to-go orders dropped dramatically once people could eat, drink and be merry in Wisconsin.”

Robin Anthony, president of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, says that while the intention to keep people safe in Minnesota was a good one, “this didn’t feel right to me.”

“It was discouraging to watch Stillwater suffer when Wisconsin was gaining,” Anthony says. “I drove over to Hudson when our businesses were shut down, and 80% of the cars had Minnesota plates.”

The restaurant shutdown rippled across downtown Stillwater.

“Hardly anyone was going to lunch and then stopping in to shop,” says Meg Brownson, owner of Alfresco Casual Living, a Main Street gift shop. “When I suggested to customers that they do takeout with my neighbors, they said, ‘Oh, no, we’re going over to Hudson to eat.’ ”

Pandemic-imposed precautions limited some traffic on the other side of the river. But many Hudson restaurant owners cleared out tables to enhance social distancing, and the customers kept heading east.

“We’re at half capacity but still so busy that I hired extra staff for the new customers,” says Chad Trainor, owner of Urban Olive and Vine on Hudson’s main drag. “People had to wait to get in, which was a nice problem.”

A ‘different ethic’

This wasn’t the first time Wisconsin’s more relaxed rules coaxed thirsty Minnesotans to cross the bridge. Until 2017, Minnesota liquor stores were closed on Sundays, leading to Sabbath booze runs to Wisconsin border towns. Many Minnesota baby boomers recall their teenage trips to Wisconsin taverns during the 12 years (1972-1984) when the legal drinking age in the Badger State was 18.

“Western Wisconsin has always had a different ethic,” observes John Kaul, a retired Minnesota lobbyist who lives across the St. Croix River from Hudson.

“The Minnesota side of the river is more like a Twin Cities suburb. Western Wisconsin feels more rural.”

“Where the population is sparser, there’s a high level of contempt for wearing masks; that’s proven true everywhere,” he says. “I’ve been wary about running over to Wisconsin this year because of their Wild West approach.”

But in at least one instance, Minnesotans brought the Wild West to Hudson. On Dec. 6, shortly after 1 a.m., with crowds congregating in watering holes along Hudson’s historic Main Street, two groups of Twin Cities men began fighting. Three men were stabbed, one of them fatally. Three Minnesota men have been charged in the homicide.

In response, Hudson’s Common Council imposed a 10 p.m. curfew, which has since been rescinded.

With all of the added bar traffic, Hudson started seeing “a crowd that was a little rougher than what we were used to,” says attorney Jamie Johnson, host of the public affairs cable program Western Wisconsin Journal and president of the Hudson School Board.

“This (the stabbing) was an isolated incident, but it was so tragic, so unfortunate,” he says.

Despite the different approaches to COVID-19, there were remarkable similarities in the coronavirus’ health impact on both states. As of late March, Wisconsin recorded roughly 575,000 total cases, 98,659 per million people, to Minnesota’s 512,000 cases and 90,803 per million.

However, Minnesota has had more deaths, 6,900, and deaths per million, 1,222, than Wisconsin, with 6,600 deaths and 1,133 deaths per million. 

In his role with the School Board, Johnson has kept a close watch on COVID-19 cases, with all of that additional traffic coming from Minnesota.

“Borders are artificial,” he says. “We held our breath to see if there would be a spike. Wisconsin reaped the economic benefits of Minnesota going with more regulations, but we wondered if it would end up costing us in cases and if the price to do that was worth it.”

Which, invariably, leads to the question of whether Walz’s “abundance of caution,” which put thousands of Minnesota businesses at a disadvantage, was worth it.

“You can’t prove what worked or didn’t work,” Johnson says. “In a school setting, where kids and staff are there for six, eight hours, you’re more likely to be able to prove it. With a transient hospitality crowd, it’s hard to know where they came from, where they stopped.”

The long-term fallout, both in terms of profits gained and lost and the number of infections, is still being assessed. The disruption to the regional spirit of unity may be more difficult to measure.

Looking ahead to what promises to be a stellar season for tourism along the St. Croix, business owners and community leaders seem to want to move past the pandemic and resume considering the people across the river as neighbors rather than rivals.

“A whole new group of guests found us, and I hope they will come back,” says Mary Claire Potter, president of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau.

“This summer, both Stillwater and Hudson are going to explode with people wanting to drive on day trips and long weekends,” she says. “It will be beneficial to all of us. We are kindred spirits, and we will work together.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist and broadcaster. This first appeared in the Spring issue of Diggings, a publication of the Badger Institute.

Please follow and like us: