How Oshkosh mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic


Joe Schulz / Advance-Titan

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

The coronavirus pandemic has strained the Oshkosh economy, as iconic events have been canceled, employees laid off and both small and large businesses face financial shortcomings. 

In the months since March, coronavirus cases in Wisconsin have only continued to increase, further straining businesses as they were bracing for further economic struggles about a month ago, according to UW Oshkosh’s COVID-19 business survey.

However, some business leaders had a hand in creating this environment.

Here’s a timeline of how Oshkosh has been impacted by the pandemic and how the actions of some undermined the community’s response:


For many, this month is when they first became aware of COVID-19 and its devastating health and economic impacts. 

In Oshkosh, UWO sent residential students home and moved classes online halfway through the month.

Around this time, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers closed bars and restaurants for dine-in service, employers began laying off workers and community groups rallied to support Oshkosh. 

By the end of March, Evers had issued a statewide “Safer-at-Home” order, closing non-essential businesses. 


Early on, the Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked Evers’ attempt to move the state’s primary election, signaling the conservative court’s initial objections to the governor’s executive authority to manage the pandemic. 

As non-essential businesses closed, the area’s essential workers braved the pandemic to keep the city running and corporations doled out temporary raises as a public relations stunt.  

While some of the state’s lowest paid employees received wage increases, many of those laid off by the shutdown struggled to get unemployment benefits. 

As the month dragged on, Evers eventually extended the Safer-at-Home order and protests broke out throughout Wisconsin demanding an end to the restriction.

Around that same time, the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce began to signal an opposition to government restrictions aimed at combating the pandemic. The Tavern League of Wisconsin was also a vocal opponent of the order. 


Restrictions on non-essential businesses began to ease and Oshkosh businesses began working toward reopening.

State GOP leaders publicly embraced a reopening plan pushed by the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce lobbying group, which publicly opposed the Safer-at-Home order.

Weeks before non-essential businesses were initially supposed to reopen, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ Safer-at-Home order. 

Almost immediately, Oshkosh bars were packed with customers. They were quickly forced to close, however, as Winnebago County issued its own Safer-at-Home order, which was quickly rescinded. 

EAA announced that its signature AirVenture event, which brings 600,000 people to Oshkosh each year, would be canceled in 2020.


Rock USA and Country USA music festivals, which are traditionally held in June and July, were canceled due to COVID-19. 

The New York Times and USA Today warned that Oshkosh was primed for a major COVID-19 outbreak. 

As Winnebago County worked to give the health officer more power to issue restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19, it faced significant pushback from the community. 


Much of that pushback, however, was the result of misinformation coming from local officials. Specifically, state Rep. Michael Schraa (, R-Oshkosh), who owns Leon’s Frozen Custard, and the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce were feeding the misinformation frenzy. 

The weight of losing AirVenture was felt by the community, as businesses didn’t see the annual revenue boost the event brings as unemployment began returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Schraa claimed masks are ineffective and publicly pushed back on efforts to create a local mask mandate.


City officials hosted a budget planning workshop, revealing that the city was projected to face a $500,000 revenue shortfall and even larger cuts to expenses as a result of the pandemic. 


The Winnebago County Health Department described COVID-19 activity in the county as “significant” and uncontrolled, while Oshkosh moved onto the New York Times top 10 list of cities in which COVID-19 was spreading the fastest.

The Outlet Mall went into foreclosure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


City and county officials met with local leaders to begin brainstorming a unified approach to battling COVID-19. Even so, the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce and the local Tavern League affiliate remained defiant that people needed to regulate their own behavior.

Evers issued an executive order limiting capacity on bars and restaurants to 25%, which the Tavern League has fought tooth and nail. 

Fox Valley hospitals near capacity and health officials warn that things could get worse if the community doesn’t change its behavior.

The Winnebago County Board of Supervisors postponed a vote on giving the health officer power to enforce COVID-19 restrictions. 


Wisconsin remains a COVID-19 hotspot as some businesses have recovered and others are still struggling. In mid-November, the Winnebago County Board finally approved an ordinance, giving the local health officer the power to enforce safety measures.

As of Dec. 2, 100 people have died of COVID-19 in Winnebago County, according to the health department.

To date, the state has not passed any bill aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 since the Safer-at-Home order expired. Its embrace of the WMC plan was a smokescreen.

It didn’t have to be this bad. If Republican lawmakers hadn’t undermined Evers at every turn and if certain business groups hadn’t undermined local officials, we may have had a local COVID-19 ordinance back in June. 

If we had an ordinance months ago and if our leaders gave us a unified message supporting the science, our hospitals wouldn’t have been pushed to the brink and lives could have been saved. 

“Pretty much every health leader has said that there needs to be a unified public message on this issue and they’re not seeing that,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Politics and State Government Reporter Molly Beck said at a Nov. 12 virtual event. “From their view, they think it would go a long way, if the leaders of both parties got together on the same page on a message, not necessarily on policy, but just on a message.”

Moreover, businesses wouldn’t be facing possible closure or staffing shortages due to employees contracting COVID-19 if we had kept our positive case rate down.

“For businesses, it’s a double edged sword because you can say, ‘Keep this open because they’re struggling, they really need those customers;’ [but] whether they’re forced to close or or not, the market — or coronavirus cases — will keep their business down dramatically,” Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. CEO Jason White said. “That’s the catch22, there’s really no other way around that.”

Unfortunately, party politics and misinformation seeped into the Oshkosh community, preventing a timely and effective response to the pandemic.

While Oshkosh leaders have come together for the “Love Oshkosh” campaign, it may be too little too late.