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Time for region to get serious about virus precautions

So, here we are, finally confronted with COVID-19 in the northwoods.

For months, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the northern reaches of Wisconsin watched as more urban areas in the lower parts of both states wrestled with coronavirus. We remained relatively confident in being too remote, too strong — even too few in number — to worry about COVID-19 taking hold here.

Some of us wore facemasks, others not, with a minor shrug at safety. Some did so begrudgingly, regularly looking for ways to sidestep or defy the requirements, arguing each state’s cautious mandates shouldn’t apply to places so sparsely populated.

This is the northwoods, after all — we darned near originated the concept of social distancing.

And as cases rose elsewhere through the spring and much of the summer but remained relatively few here, the region chafed and grumbled about restrictions imposed from Lansing or Madison, Wis.

Then September arrived. Schools and colleges came back into session. And COVID-19, apparently lurking like a cruising shark, surged to the surface to savage the region.

On Sept. 1, Michigan’s COVID-19 data site listed 33 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iron County, with one death. Thursday, that rural U.P. county, population roughly 11,000 in 2019, had 263 cases — almost eight times what it was at the start of September — and 10 deaths, with nine coming in roughly the past two weeks.

Dickinson County had 64 confirmed cases and two deaths to open September and now has 256, along with a third death Tuesday; the state’s COVID-19 data site Thursday listed a fourth fatal case.

Houghton County, home to Michigan Technological University, entered September with 66 cases and a death. It now is at 639 and four deaths, the college gone to online-only classes.

Northeastern Wisconsin has become something of a COVID-19 incubator. Marinette County, perhaps the hardest-hit in the region, started September with 614 confirmed cases. Thursday, it had climbed to 1,191 and nine deaths. Forest County has dealt with 356 positives and seven deaths.

Sure, the number of deaths in the region overall has remained relatively low compared with the number of cases. But that is scant comfort to those who lost loved ones, many elderly, vulnerable and unable to avoid what hit them — and who perhaps could not be visited while dying, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Michigan state Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain tested positive for COVID-19 in late September. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin announced Saturday he had contracted the virus as well.

Even the president of the United States, Donald Trump, fell ill to the virus last week, along with the First Lady and a list of White House staff that continues to grow.

Yet at the same time, legal efforts have been launched in Michigan and Wisconsin to end restrictions aimed at lowering potential exposure to COVID-19. The grounds for those challenges — mostly based on lack of government authority — might very well have valid legal footing. But it’s a classic case of what might be legal versus what might be the right thing to do to address the coronavirus surge.

Some contend these recommended practices don’t really help. But can anyone argue that taking the most basic steps — wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing, maintaining hygiene measures such as frequent hand washing and using sanitizers — would hurt, given the current COVID-19 situation?

While you might be willing to gamble on withstanding the virus, are you as ready to risk potentially passing it along to those more vulnerable in the community?

And, yes, workers and businesses directly affected by this crisis need assistance and considerations to help carry them through. At the same time, keep in mind the longer the pandemic lasts — or the more severe it becomes — the greater the economic pain will be.

The region no longer can consider itself beyond the reach of coronavirus. For the good of the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin — and exclusive of any political affiliation — opposition to COVID-19 precautions needs to end.

Wear the mask. Keep your distance. Stay safe.

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