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'What's Going On?': Number Of Sickened Lake Minnetonka 4th Of July Boaters Nears 120

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- About 120 boaters and swimmers now say they got sick after celebrating the Fourth of July on Lake Minnetonka.

Health leaders in Hennepin County Wednesday said they have received 140 phone calls from sick people. At least 116 of them had symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea after spending Independence Day near Lake Minnetonka's Big Island.

Locals who know the lake well might feel safer about jumping in or boating, but one business says its customers -- specifically those who aren't from the area -- have reservations about keeping their reservations.

Peak summer means peak business for Paddle Tap, a boating business in which passengers pedal and drink their way across Lake Minnetonka.

"It's the busiest time of the year. We only have like 12 weeks or so to really crush it out," said manager Wells Brose.

Which is why he said the sickness scare in water near Big Island couldn't have happened at a worse time. Customers are calling, wondering if they should cancel their reservations.

"They don't want to come out at all. They're worried, 'Am I gonna get sick? Am I gonna get hurt? What's going on?' And so, just want to let people know it's safe to be on boats," he said.

Lake Minnetonka Fourth Of July
Big Island on the Fourth of July, 2019 (credit: CBS)

Brose says one customer even switched their reservation to the Paddle Tap at White Bear Lake as a precaution.

"They said they'd much rather go out [on Lake Minnetonka] but they're worried their own health," Brose said.

Hennepin County Public Health said it has returned more than 140 phone calls from people who reported being ill after celebrating the Fourth of July weekend along Big Island. Their symptoms included cramping, vomiting and diarrhea.

Austin Hilgenberg was one of them. He said he started feeling sick about three days after his trip to Big Island. He ruled out food poisoning because he said people weren't all eating the same foods. He admits jumping into the lake and possibly ingesting some water.

"I actually had my girlfriend on my shoulders and she wasn't in the water and she didn't get sick," Hilgenberg said.

He feels too many people treat the water around Big Island like a trash can or bathroom, so he wants to see a barge out there during the holiday.

"With this barge, we'll be able to provide people with medical assistance, [portable bathrooms] and waste management," he said.

The city of Orono encompasses Big Island. City Administrator Dustin Rief said park staff will mow the grass and maintain trails, but that's the extent of the work they do on the island.

"If we are now having sickness, then maybe it's time for us to address that," Rief said.

He says the city doesn't have control over the water that surrounds the island, however he is open to discussing the idea of a barge. He feels the communities that surround the lake and stakeholders such as the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District need to work together on a solution.

"My council and myself, we take a lot of interest in anything that happens on the water that could potentially impact our residents," Rief said.

Hilgenberg visited the doctor on Monday for bloodwork and to provide a stool sample. He said his test results came back negative for both E. coli and norovirus, further adding to the mystery of why so many people have gotten sick.

Anyone who went to Big Island and experienced similar symptoms is asked to call 612-543-5230.

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