Large crowds in downtown La Crosse continue as colleges reopen for fall semester

Gundersen's Megan Meller says large gatherings are not worth risk as health experts try to better their understanding of COVID-19
Lax Co Health Update

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – La Crosse health experts are asking people to stay away from large crowds as colleges open their doors. There are still lingering questions about the true impact of coronavirus spread among younger populations. However, Gundersen Health System infection control practitioner Megan Meller said she expects things to change once colder weather moves in this fall.

“Now is really the time where we can’t let our guard down against COVID,” Meller said.

Two photographs tell the story of La Crosse’s downtown atmosphere on the weekends.

Downtown crowds

Students line up outside a La Crosse downtown bar on 3rd Street Saturday evening.

Downtown crowds

La Crosse bar on Pearl Street with people gathering inside on Saturday night.

Young people in La Crosse don’t seem quite as concerned about COVID-19, despite numerous warnings from health experts about gatherings. Meller said it’s not worth the risk.

“We don’t know in the end whether someone’s going to have a mild illness or whether someone’s going to have a severe illness.

No bar is singled out in downtown La Crosse. There are multiple locations of large gatherings, including house parties outside of downtown. One downtown bar owner spoke to News 8 Now, but he did not want to use his name or the bar he owns.

He said most of their business comes from young people during weekends. He said they are taking precautions including checking temperatures at the door, providing hand sanitizer, and requiring their employees to wear masks. This owner said he is doing what he can to keep his business running and keep people safe.

There has been disagreement among healthcare professionals about how COVID-19 affects children and people in their 20s. The Coulee Collaborative shows more than 52 percent of La Crosse County’s positive cases are people ages 20-29.

Experts need more data from the fall semester to determine how the virus will affect young people. La Crosse County has had two deaths of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Those people were in their 70s. It seems like a small number, but not to those people’s families.

“Every death matters,” Meller said. “Every death means someone lost a loved one.”

More than 1,300 people have tested positive in the county since the pandemic began, that’s 1.14 percent of the county population. There are people who can walk around with the virus with no symptoms so this data only tells part of the story. A total of 5.8 percent of people tested positive out of La Crosse County’s 23,000 tests.

“Usually in the summer the risk of getting a respiratory illness is very low to begin with because people are outside,” Meller said.

Low numbers Meller said also reflects positively on the county as a whole.

“That means we’re doing a really good thing and we’re doing the right thing,” she said.

Health experts will monitor data as the year progresses. Meller said the fall will help explain the real effect the virus has on younger populations.

“I think that’s going to change dramatically once you have colleges back, you have sports going on or at least sport variations,” she said. “We have the holidays approaching.”

La Crosse County Health Department Director Jen Rombalski declined News 8 Now’s request for an on-camera interview Tuesday.  However, she did respond in an email saying, “We know that COVID spreads easily from person to person and that the risk level for becoming infected is higher when in close contact with others outside of your household.

“Wearing a mask when around others outside your household, maintaining a six-foot distance from others, and minimizing gatherings of large numbers of people, especially indoors and in smaller spaces, is effective in decreasing the risk of COVID and its impacts on individuals, families, and our community.”