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McFeely: Gov. Walz, Minnesota lakes country tells ND cabin owners to stay home

After North Dakota indicates it's OK to travel to cabins in midst of pandemic, Minnesota pushes back

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FARGO — Stay home, North Dakota.

That's the message from Gov. Tim Walz and some leaders in Minnesota lakes country, where many North Dakota residents have cabins.

They are asking all cabin owners to sit tight in light of the pandemic.

In a teleconference with reporters Thursday, April 9, Walz said he doesn't want North Dakota people going to Minnesota lakes as the state tries to stop the spread of the coronavirus by sheltering in place. The governor also doesn't want Minnesotans going to North Dakota cabins.

"I just want to be clear. Our friends in North Dakota are not the problem with this, but we all do need to get on the same page," Walz said.


There's been some confusion about what's allowed and what's not, what's encouraged and what's not, when it comes to travel between the states. Minnesota, under Walz's direction, has a shelter-in-place order that's been extended until May 4. North Dakota, under Burgum's direction, has refused to call for its residents to shelter in place.

North Dakota on Wednesday indicated traveling to Minnesota lake cabins was acceptable because it was viewed as outdoors recreational activity.

Walz and leaders in Minnesota lakes country took exception. Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer and Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners Chairman Lee Rogness said cabin owners — whether they are from North Dakota, Minnesota or anywhere else — should stay home.

Their concerns are the same as those voiced in other rural Minnesota areas with lakes: They believe their generally older population is more vulnerable to the virus and they worry whether their hospitals can handle a heavy influx of patients.

The message: Stay home.

"We look forward to welcoming our seasonal residents to our area once we are through this critically important phase in the fight against COVID-19," Schierer said. "We echo the advice of our local health care providers, our county public health and our state health department in urging residents to stay home to stop the spread of the virus and overburdening our rural hospitals. Our rural populations are older and on average have more of the underlying health conditions that lead to serious complications with the illness. We are all looking forward to summer, but we need to take these next few weeks seriously."

Rogness said the county, which has hundreds of lakes and thousands of cabins, supports Walz's order.

"We would ask that all of our cabin owners, whether they are from North Dakota or Minnesota, delay coming here. We're just asking for a delay, possibly for a couple of weeks," Rogness said. "We're asking that you follow the governor's order. We're all in this together. We have to flatten that curve."


Rogness said if cabin owners are concerned about their property, they can call the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Department and request that a deputy check on it.

The tone was much less firm in Detroit Lakes and Becker County, another popular lakes area. Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk, through a spokesman, deferred to Becker County.

In a press release, the county acknowledged seasonal property owners and urged "everyone to comply with the guidance" in Walz's stay-at-home executive order.

"We need to follow the rules; it is important to do our part to lower the peak of this epidemic," county commissioner Don Skarie said in the release.

County Commission chair Ben Grimsley sounded more open to people visiting their cabins.

"We want people to think independently and to make decisions that they feel are best for them and their families," Grimsley said. "Then when they make those decisions, whatever they are, we want them to follow the rules."

The debate over whether people should head for the lakes or stay home during the pandemic is a common one in Minnesota.

Walz earlier canceled the governor's Minnesota walleye fishing opener event, scheduled in early May for Otter Tail County, saying that Minnesotans should enjoy the outdoors but stay close to home when doing it.


Some northern Minnesota counties have asked that cabin owners stay away until the peak of the pandemic passes. Cook County in extreme northeastern Minnesota pondered blocking its main highway to stop people from the Twin Cities and Duluth from entering.

"I don’t think travel in general is wise right now," Walz said. "I'm certainly not encouraging people to go to North Dakota or elsewhere. My folks up north in Minnesota are concerned about people moving. We think it’s best to be sheltered close to home. You can go outside but not to travel and get others involved with it."

Ben Schierer
Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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