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Iowa Great Lakes Region Sees Uptick In COVID-19 Cases

Tom Gustafson
Courtesy of Okoboji Tourism
Dickinson County is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, a couple of weeks after Memorial Day weekend, a busy time for tourism in the region.

A northwest Iowa county known for summer tourism is seeing an increase in new COVID-19 cases believed to be partly related to Memorial Day weekend and the start of the busy summer season.
Dickinson County has a population of more than 17,000 people, but its summer population can grow significantly. Heading into Memorial Day weekend, the county had seven COVID-19 cases, including five that had recovered. As of 2 p.m. Thursday, it has 100 cases.

Brandon Rohrig, the director of population and public health for Dickinson County Public Health and Lakes Regional Healthcare, said the rise is “quite concerning,” but it has yet to reflect the true number of cases.

“Especially as a lot of the people have interacted with a lot of others, so the web just continues to expand,” Rohrig said, “which is also, I would guess, why we’re seeing so many more tests being completed here.”

Rohrig said the county has 30 COVID-19 tests that are still awaiting results. The county’s COVID-19 hotline has lately gotten a lot more calls from people asking about their symptoms or exposure. Rohrig estimated 100 calls related to COVID-19 came in this past weekend. 

Credit Lakes Regional Healthcare and Dickinson County Emergency Management via Facebook
A graphic that shows the increase in COVID-19 cases in Dickinson County.

Dickinson County is home to the Iowa Great Lakes, a popular vacation spot that attracts people from around Iowa, as well as out-of-state tourists. Visitors spent $302.5 million in the county in 2018, according to the Iowa Tourism Office. Mitch Watters, a councilman on the Arnolds Park City Council, said the region is starting to get busy for the summer, “which is great for the businesses up there.” But Watters said he has also seen a lot of people in town not wearing masks or social distancing.

“We need the tourism to survive in a small community the size of Arnolds Park,” Watters said, “but yet, we also need to practice the social distancing.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Wednesday that businesses won't be restricted to 50 percent capacity anymore starting Friday, but restaurants and bars will still need to adhere to social distancing restrictions.

Looking ahead to an influx of visitors, the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors in April required people traveling from at least 100 miles away to self-quarantine for 14 days. But Bill Leupold, the chairman of the board, said once COVID-19 reached Worthington, Minn. about 40 miles away, the quarantine became unenforceable. Four of Dickinson County's first six cases were people who work at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Dickinson County News reported.

“We had people coming in from other places, not all of them were staying in their homes for 14 days, and it just got to be pointless,” Leupold said. “The trouble with rules is you can make them, but then you have to enforce them.”

Leupold called the rise in COVID-19 cases in Dickinson County “kind of a shock,” yet expected at the same time. He said he is not considering passing another quarantine for the county because he feels “people ignore it.”

Dickinson County Public Health has four staff members conducting contact tracing on COVID-19 cases. That includes the health department’s Brandon Rohrig. Since Dickinson County’s population swells over the summer with people who have summer homes and tourists who come for a weekend, Rohrig said his health department decided to include summer residents who test positive for COVID-19 in the county’s tally of COVID-19 cases.

“Hopefully we’re catching most of them and putting most of them as Dickinson County so we can do the follow-up [contact tracing],” Rohrig said, “but I know some do slip through the cracks.”

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.