MITCHELL, S.D. — Some officials are upset with what is seemingly an open invitation for nonresidents to travel to South Dakota as the state encourages outdoor enthusiasts to capitalize on its recreational opportunities.
Tribal, county and city governments in central South Dakota have expressed concern that nonresident anglers are ignoring coronavirus-induced stay-at-home orders to visit areas along the Missouri River to chase the spring walleye bite. Those officials are also frustrated that the state’s Game, Fish and Parks Department isn’t doing enough to deter nonresidents from using South Dakota’s waters.
Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Chairman Lester Thompson Jr., this week wrote a letter to Gov. Kristi Noem, GF&P and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers encouraging the closure of boat accesses along the river to “flatten the curve” of those infected.
“If they’re coming from high-infected areas, shut them down from coming here right now,” Thompson said Tuesday, March 31. “I’ve fielded concerns from local residents who have existing health concerns. They’re fearful, and it seems like we’re inviting people here.”
Noem has requested for South Dakota businesses to restrict gatherings, but the state’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks has recently called for people to enjoy the outdoors while following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The department has sent emails reminding people to “make mindful decisions as you care for yourself and your loved ones, but know that our state’s outdoor resources are available and waiting for you.”
“The outdoors remain open, and that’s the message we want to send,” said Kevin Robling, GF&P deputy secretary. “We want to make sure folks are following those CDC guidelines and the guidelines Gov. Noem laid out — the social distancing; the handwashing. But we want people to get outside, enjoy the outdoors and still practice those CDC guidelines during this difficult time.”
On Tuesday morning, Thompson said there were more than 40 boats fishing near the Fort Thompson dam. He said the majority of the truck-trailers that were parked at the access were from Minnesota and Iowa.
“I’ve got license plates and vehicle make and models,” he said before rattling off several examples. Minnesotans are allowed to go fishing during the stay-at-home order, but its Department of Natural Resources says residents should “stay close to home.” However, Minnesota’s general walleye season is closed until May 9.
The Brule County Commission and the Chamberlain City Commission have also considered whether enough is being done to prevent nonresidents from visiting. As of Tuesday, Minnesota — which has ordered its residents to stay at home — has had 629 positive cases and 12 deaths from COVID-19. Iowa is at 497 positive cases and seven deaths. South Dakota was at 108 cases with one death as of Tuesday afternoon.
James Nesladek, Brule County Commission chairman, agrees with Thompson that GF&P should close the state’s boat ramps to nonresidents.
“They have the virus worse in their states, and they don’t need to bring it here,” he said. “All of the commissioners think we should shut the boat ramps down from the out-of-staters, not South Dakotans. We need to self-quarantine our state so we’re not allowing other states to come in and affect our citizens.”
The Chamberlain City Commission on Thursday will meet to consider how to stay proactive to fight the spread of COVID-19. Its members will keep in mind the importance of the economic impact of spring recreation for the community. Several South Dakota towns and cities have closed nonessential businesses, and Chamberlain relies heavily on tourism of people buying bait and tackle, staying in hotels and utilizing gas stations during fishing trips. While there has been some consideration to close boat ramps altogether, the Chamberlain City Commission believes that authority is up to GF&P.
“To give a scene, at this time of year in the spring every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, wherever there’s a dock, it’s packed with trucks, trailers and boats,” said Hannah Ruhlman, Chamberlain city commissioner. “Springtime is kind of when stuff picks up again, and a lot of our businesses rely on this time of year to get a boost. But I know some of our business owners would prefer out-of-staters don’t come, even if it means a hit to their business.”
When notified of the concerns from tribal and local governments on Tuesday afternoon, Robling said GFP is “evaluating circumstances every day, as is the rest of the country.”
“At this time, we do not plan to close state parks and boat ramps or fishing and hunting seasons,” he wrote in an email. “We are encouraging people to get outside while following the social distancing guidelines by Gov. Noem, the Dept. of Health and the CDC.”
Virus impacting fishing business
The demand for those coming from neighboring states has put local businesses in a bind when it comes to paying bills and taking health-related precautionary measures.
Currently, the Platte Creek Lodge sits empty as co-owner Tom Steinhauser was forced to cancel reservations to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Steinhauser is still offering guide tours, but he has moved to having patrons meet him at the river in their own vehicles rather than riding together from the lodge.
“We still get a lot of people calling every day, and we’re the ones putting a stop to it right now,” Steinhauser said. “… Today, we’ve had three different phone calls from Minnesota people that want to come fishing this week. We’re saying, ‘Aren’t you in a lockdown right now? We’ve only got 100 cases of (COVID-19) and you’ve got (629) cases. I don’t want you bringing it to me.’”
Steinhauser has considered opening a limited number of rooms and sterilizing them for a few days to combat the temptation of making a profit and accepting business that could go elsewhere if he chooses not to provide his services.
“I hate telling people not to come, because they’re going to go somewhere,” Steinhauser said. “They’re going to stay at the local motel or go somewhere. We’d just as soon have them stay with us, but I also don’t want to get sick either.”
With the combination of people being relegated to their homes for more than two weeks, increasingly warmer weather and encouragement from the GF&P, the urge to hit the water has been undeniable for many people.
“Our foot traffic has decreased in the store,” said Todd Heitkamp, owner of Dakota Angler in Sioux Falls, “but those that are coming in are really wanting to get out. They’re going stir-crazy inside.”