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Wisconsin counties, cities face 'difficult' mask decisions


Wisconsin’s cities and counties are struggling with whether and how to enact local mask mandates in the absence of a statewide order, members of the state’s business community were told Wednesday.

Without a uniform mask law, Wisconsin cities and counties are left to decide on their own what to do. That has caused them many problems, leaders of groups representing cities, villages and counties told members of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on a telephone meeting Wednesday.

An “overwhelming majority” of Wisconsin cities have “no intention of adopting a mask mandate,” said Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. That’s based on a survey the group did as well as a general sense from conversations with local leaders, he said.

Cities are looking for some kind of uniformity statewide, Deschane said.

“Cities see people getting sick, they’re getting these reports daily on people being hospitalized, dying and all the rest,” he said. “They feel a great sense of frustration but they don’t necessarily have the tools to act. ... We are all in a boat that none of us wanted to be in together, but we have to figure this out.”

A number of Wisconsin’s larger counties and cities have enacted their own mask orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while Gov. Tony Evers has said he is considering whether to join a majority of other states with a mandate that applies everywhere. Evers has said he’s reluctant to act after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down his safer-at-home order, while others have said he still has the legal authority to declare a health emergency and mandate the wearing of masks.

The Republican-controlled Legislature also has the authority to enact a statewide rule for masks, but GOP leaders have said they’re not interested in a mandate.

“I think wearing a mask should be voluntary, and many people are already doing it,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said. Evers and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Evers should try a statewide mandate again in addition to local communities enacting rules that work for them, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said during a Milwaukee Press Club event on Wednesday. She said more people wearing masks and not being close to one another are proven ways to slow the spread.

“I think that we need to evaluate the actions that we can take at any level and every level,” Baldwin said. “Certainly, it would be better on some of the issues I’m describing if the leadership would be coming from the president.”

Health officials around the world have said wearing masks is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is highly contagious. Thirty-two states have enacted some form of statewide mask mandate. Polls have shown broad support for wearing masks to help fight the virus.

There are mask mandates in place in Milwaukee and Dane counties covering Wisconsin’s largest cities of Milwaukee and Madison. Numerous other cities, including Green Bay, Racine, Superior and Whitewater have enacted mask ordinances. Appleton and Milton this week recommended people to wear masks but did not mandate it.

“It has been difficult,” said Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association. “We have a patchwork approach to it right now and that is what we’re going to have for the foreseeable future.”

Counties are trying to come up with their own approach to combating the virus, trying to find plans that are practical, workable and enforceable, he said.

“We’re hearing both ends of the spectrum,” O’Connell said. “There is no clear consensus on what counties are thinking. It is all over the board.”

Wisconsin has had more than 51,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus and 911 deaths as of Wednesday. That death count is the 28th highest in the country overall and the 35th highest per capita at nearly 16 deaths per 100,000 people. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 99, an increase of 13%.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

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Petition asks Janesville schools to require masks during instruction


An anonymous petition seeking stricter mask requirements in Janesville schools has garnered more than 850 signatures.

The petition on asks the Janesville School District to settle the mask debate for students and staff by requiring masks for “any in-person instruction” in school buildings.

The district’s return to school plan, approved by the Janesville School Board on July 14, requires masks only in spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.

The petition calls for masks in all classrooms.

“An outbreak of COVID-19 in our schools would be disruptive to our children’s continued education, potentially unsafe for our kids and would be likely to spread into the community,” the petition reads.

“Any in-person instruction must require masks for all district employees and students. Firm insistence on this requirement is a basic safety precaution that we have seen countless private businesses take. Masks keep your students, your employees and the rest of the Janesville community safer and will also minimize potential future disruptions to our children’s education.”

The petition had 874 signatures at noon Wednesday.

“I’m a teacher,” one person commented on the petition. “I want to stay safe and keep my students safe. I want to keep my family safe.”

Another wrote: “I’m signing because I am a teacher. I want to keep myself and anyone I come into contact with safe.”

The petition applauds the district for offering educational options for students this fall and says at a minimum, masks should be worn in schools when social distancing isn’t possible.

The district had already established rules supporting this idea—masks will be required in schools when social distancing can’t be practiced, such as small groups or one-on-one instruction and hallway passing time.

Patrick Gasper, district spokesman, said the district has seen the petition and pointed to the district’s current mask requirement.

“We are aware of that petition, and would like to emphasize that the district plan is to require mask/face coverings by staff/students that can safely wear them in all areas where appropriate social distancing measures cannot be established/maintained,” Gasper wrote in an email to The Gazette.

The district plans to provide masks to those who do not have their own, and staff will be provided with a face shield if preferred over a mask. These changes are made following Rock County Public Health Department guidelines, the district website reads.

Masks will be optional at school in situations where social distancing can be practiced. The petition asks for masks in these situations, too.

School Board President Steve Huth said the board’s decision to require masks became easier when major retailers such as Festival Foods and Woodman’s began requiring masks earlier this month.

He hopes parents explain the importance of masks to students because he doesn’t want school staff to become “mask police.”

Huth said his grandchildren wear masks in public, and they don’t mind wearing them. He wasn’t part of the district decision but said mask mandates can be extremely hard to enforce and use.

Huth hopes students will be responsible, but he also understands there are times when students should have the freedom to choose.

“I think in some cases the concern is for children who are slightly claustrophobic or uncomfortable, you’d hate to turn a safety precaution into a disciplinary issue,” he said.

“I think the district also wanted to give a little bit of grace to students when they feel they are in a safe spot to be able to remove it and get comfortable. … We have that option as adults because we go to the store and can take it off when we’re driving our car. But in an eight-hour day in a school setting, children need to have the chance to remove it at least for comfort sake.”

The district will continue to evaluate all of its COVID-19 requirements as the situation develops, Huth said.

Kwik Trip acquiring Stop-N-Go stores, including four in Janesville


Kwik Trip plans to review each of the 36 Stop-N-Go convenience stores the company announced acquiring, but it’s not yet clear if the four Stop-N-Go stores in Janesville would remain Stop-N-Go or become rebranded as Kwik Trip.

Wisconsin convenience store giant Kwik Trip announced Wednesday an agreement to acquire the assets of Madison-based competitor Stop-N-Go, including stores in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, according to a Kwik Trip news release.

Financial details of the acquisition haven’t been made public, but Kwik Trip plans to add Stop-N-Go’s locations to Kwik Trip’s own stable of 700 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The acquisition includes the four Janesville Stop-N-Go locations at 714 Center Ave., 1804 E. Milwaukee St., 3515 E. Milwaukee St., and 1604 E. Racine St.

According to the release, the sale could close in December.

Kwik Trip has made headlines for aggressive growth linked, in part, to its forays into fresh, cooked and prepackaged foods. Kwik Trip spokesman John McHugh said Kwik Trip has seen increased growth in fresh, prepackaged food sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend he said comes as shoppers seek more convenience to spend and less time shopping in crowds.

McHugh said Kwik Trip analysts believe such acquisitions will be more commonplace in the future as convenience store chains such as Kwik Trip, which produces and packages a large share of its own fresh food, continue to grow larger, more “vertically integrated,” and less reliant on increasingly slim revenues from gas and tobacco sales.

Kwik Trip’s engineering department now plans a “store-by-store” review of each Stop-N-Go. McHugh said each of Stop-N-Go store’s size and operations might determine which stores remain Stop-N-Go and which could be rebranded as Kwik Trip.

“There’s a good percentage of the Stop-N-Go stores that would remain Stop-N-Go,” McHugh said, explaining that some of Stop-N-Go stores are about 2,400 square feet, a size he said is “a pretty small footprint” to refit as a Kwik Trip store.

Stop-N-Go CEO and owner Andrew Bowman said it was “important” for Stop-N-Go to find a buyer that would continue the Stop-N-Go namesake at existing locations.

Kwik Trip is shifting toward bigger format stores as it moves into a wave of store expansions company officials are calling “generation-III” developments. Kwik Trip has four stores in Janesville, but the company plans to build a fifth, larger-format store next year just west of the Target store along Humes Road.

If Kwik Trip rebrands all the Janesville Stop-N-Go stores, Janesville could find itself with nine Kwik Trip locations by this time next year. But it’s possible that smaller Stop-N-Go stores, such as the 2,600-square-foot store at 1804 E. Milwaukee St., would remain branded as Stop-N-Go, McHugh indicated.

He said Kwik Trip is working to retain current Stop-N-Go employees, and he said Kwik Trip might even boost employment at some Stop-N-Go locations if those locations would be refitted to sell some of Kwik Trip’s fresh foods.

Obituaries and death notices for July 30, 2020

Richard “Rick” Lutes

Joseph T. Lytle

Susan P. Shank

Robert J. Silha

John A. Waddell

Misinformation on coronavirus is proving highly contagious


As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.

The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a false video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.

Experts worry the torrent of bad information is dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus, whose death toll in the U.S. hit 150,000 Wednesday, by far the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. More than a half-million people have died in the rest of the world.

Hard-hit Florida reported 216 deaths, breaking the single-day record it set a day earlier. Texas confirmed 313 additional deaths, pushing its total to 6,190, while South Carolina’s death toll passed 1,500 this week, more than doubling over the past month. In Georgia, hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 1.

“It is a real challenge in terms of trying to get the message to the public about what they can really do to protect themselves and what the facts are behind the problem,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

He said the fear is that “people are putting themselves in harm’s way because they don’t believe the virus is something they have to deal with.”

Rather than fade away in the face of new evidence, the claims have flourished, fed by mixed messages from officials, transmitted by social media, amplified by leaders like Trump and mutating when confronted with contradictory facts.

“You don’t need masks. There is a cure,” Dr. Stella Immanuel promised in a video that promoted hydroxychloroquine. “You don’t need people to be locked down.”

The truth: Federal regulators last month revoked their authorization of the drug as an emergency treatment amid growing evidence it doesn’t work and can have deadly side effects. Even if it were effective, it wouldn’t negate the need for masks and other measures to contain the outbreak.

None of that stopped Trump, who has repeatedly praised the drug, from retweeting the video. Twitter and Facebook began removing the video Monday for violating policies on COVID-19 misinformation, but it had already been seen more than 20 million times.

Many of the claims in Immanuel’s video are widely disputed by medical experts. She has made even more bizarre pronouncements in the past, saying that cysts, fibroids and some other conditions can be caused by having sex with demons, that McDonald’s and Pokemon promote witchcraft, that alien DNA is used in medical treatments, and that half-human “reptilians” work in the government.

Other baseless theories and hoaxes have alleged that the virus isn’t real or that it’s a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. One hoax from the outbreak’s early months claimed new 5G towers were spreading the virus through microwaves. Another popular story held that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in all 7 billion people on the planet.

Then there are the political theories—that doctors, journalists and federal officials are conspiring to lie about the threat of the virus to hurt Trump politically.

Social media has amplified the claims and helped believers find each other. The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have found themselves accused of censorship for taking down virus misinformation.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about Immanuel’s video during an often-contentious congressional hearing Wednesday.

“We did take it down because it violates our policies,” Zuckerberg said.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat leading the hearing, responded by noting that 20 million people saw the video before Facebook acted.

“Doesn’t that suggest that your platform is so big, that even with the right policies in place, you can’t contain deadly content?” Cicilline asked Zuckerberg.

It wasn’t the first video containing misinformation about the virus, and experts say it’s not likely to be the last.

A professionally made 26-minute video that alleges the government’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China was watched more than 8 million times before the platforms took action. The video, titled “Plandemic,” also warned that masks could make you sick—the false claim Facebook cited when it removed the video from its site.

Judy Mikovits, the discredited doctor behind “Plandemic,” had been set to appear on the show “America This Week” on the Sinclair Broadcast Group. But the company, which operates TV stations in 81 U.S. markets, canned the segment, saying it was “not appropriate” to air.

This week, U.S. government officials speaking on condition of anonymity cited what they said was a clear link between Russian intelligence and websites with stories designed to spread disinformation on the coronavirus in the West. Russian officials rejected the accusations.

Of all the bizarre and myriad claims about the virus, those regarding masks are proving to be among the most stubborn.

New York City resident Carlos Lopez said he wears a mask when required to do so but doesn’t believe it is necessary.

“They’re politicizing it as a tool,” he said. “I think it’s more to try to get Trump to lose. It’s more a scare tactic.”

He is in the minority. A recent AP/NORC poll said 3 in 4 Americans—Democrats and Republicans alike—support a national mask mandate.

Still, mask skeptics are a vocal minority and have come together to create social media pages where many false claims about mask safety are shared. Facebook has removed some of the pages—such as the group Unmasking America!, which had nearly 10,000 members—but others remain.

Early in the pandemic, medical authorities themselves were the source of much confusion regarding masks. In February, officials like the U.S. surgeon general urged Americans not to stockpile masks because they were needed by medical personnel and might not be effective in everyday situations.

Public health officials changed their tune when it became apparent that the virus could spread among people showing no symptoms.

Yet Trump remained reluctant to use a mask, mocked his rival Joe Biden for wearing one and suggested people might be covering their faces just to hurt him politically. He did an abrupt about-face this month, claiming that he had always supported masks—and then later retweeted Immanuel’s video against masks.

The mixed signals hurt, Fauci acknowledged in an interview with NPR this month.

“The message early on became confusing,” he said.

Many of the claims around masks allege harmful effects, such as blocked oxygen flow or even a greater chance of infection. The claims have been widely debunked by doctors.

Dr. Maitiu O Tuathail of Ireland grew so concerned about mask misinformation he posted an online video of himself comfortably wearing a mask while measuring his oxygen levels. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times.

“While face masks don’t lower your oxygen levels. COVID definitely does,” he warned.

Yet trusted medical authorities are often being dismissed by those who say requiring people to wear masks is a step toward authoritarianism.

“Unless you make a stand, you will be wearing a mask for the rest of your life,” tweeted Simon Dolan, a British businessman who has sued the government over its COVID-19 restrictions.

Trump’s reluctant, ambivalent and late embrace of masks hasn’t convinced some of his strongest supporters, who have concocted ever more elaborate theories to explain his change of heart. Some say he was actually speaking in code and doesn’t really support masks.

O Tuathail witnessed just how unshakable COVID-19 misinformation can be when, after broadcasting his video, he received emails from people who said he cheated or didn’t wear the mask long enough to feel the negative effects.

That’s not surprising, according to University of Central Florida psychology professor Chrysalis Wright, who studies misinformation. She said conspiracy theory believers often engage in mental gymnastics to make their beliefs conform with reality.

“People only want to hear what they already think they know,” she said.