UW-Whitewater’s interim chancellor said the university was “not far behind” UW-Madison, which on Wednesday night announced it would move all classes online for two weeks because of rising coronavirus cases.
Less than a week into his current role, Interim Chancellor Greg Cook spoke during a Whitewater City Council meeting Wednesday. Elected officials were considering a proposed ordinance that would have maxed out indoor gatherings at 10 people and outdoor gatherings at 25 (with several exemptions).
The proposal was rejected.
UW-Whitewater Chancellor Dwight Watson is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into an unspecified complaint, according to a UW System statement Thursday.
University officials, including Cook and student government leaders, spoke during the meeting and asked for the ordinance to pass because it would give UW-W “teeth” to take action against students who hosted large parties off-campus without proper safety precautions, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing.
“To be honest with you, we’re not far behind,” Cook said after reading to council members the breaking news from UW-Madison. “And it’s going to have an impact on the city.
“This is a last-ditch effort, really, for us—to ask for any tool we can implement to try to squash this increase in the viral spread,” he continued. “Like Mr. (Council President Lynn) Binnie, I actually fear it’s probably too late. We should have done this over a month ago.”
Binnie was the only council member of six at Wednesday’s meeting to vote informally in favor of the ordinance during a “straw poll” of sorts.
Other council members wanted to know what action the university could take on its own instead of making the city enact an ordinance that could have unintended consequences.
But Cook and Artanya Wesley, vice chancellor for student affairs, said they were not able to take much solid action for activities that happen off-campus and aren’t student-organization-sanctioned events, such as those held by fraternities or sororities.
Some council members also said they were hesitant of the mass-gathering ordinance because they weren't aware of other cities with UW System schools that were enacting similar measures, although some had orders from county government.
Before an order came from Gov. Tony Evers, Whitewater’s council on July 21 unanimously voted to require masks in buildings that are open to the public to reduce virus spread.
The Whitewater City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to require masks in buildings that are open to the public to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But what is different in the community now is that UW-Whitewater has started its fall semester with some in-person classes and students living in dorms.
“The city has substantial, legitimate interests in preserving and maintaining the health of Whitewater residents, members of the university community, including students, and guests by stopping the spread of COVID-19,” the proposed ordinance that did not pass stated.
The council instead voted to convene local stakeholders as soon as possible to see what—if anything—they could do to fix the proposed ordinance or what other action the city could take to ease the spread of COVID-19.
Back on Aug. 31, Interim UW System President and former Gov. Tommy Thompson said he felt “very strongly” about opening campuses with their precautionary plans and testing capabilities.
But UW-Madison, the system’s flagship campus, is already showing signs that its plan to bring students back to campus might not be working.
Its chancellor, Rebecca Blank, on Monday canceled all in-person social events and required undergrads to restrict their movements for the next two weeks, The Associated Press reported. Additionally, the Dane County executive on Wednesday asked UW-Madison to send undergrads living on campus home.
Then late Wednesday, UW-Madison announced its decision to move classes online for the next two weeks and direct students living in two of its larger dorms to quarantine.
Cook from UW-W foreshadowed the news coming from UW-Madison before it became widely known when council members were talking about actions the other campus was taking.
But as he alluded to more information coming Thursday, he spoke again during the meeting to share that the news had been broken since he first spoke.
"I happen to have inside knowledge, but if you watch the news tonight and tomorrow, they're going to go much further than that tomorrow," he said earlier in the meeting. "Their numbers are just getting worse. So, it will be even more than that tomorrow."
UW-Whitewater’s COVID-19 dashboard, last updated Wednesday morning, accounted for 44 positive tests among students since Sunday, which is almost as much as the 51 tallied during all of last week.
Walworth County on Wednesday recorded having 1,911 laboratory confirmed cases, five of which were currently hospitalized and 125 that were isolating at home. Thirty-two people have died from the disease in the county that includes part of UW-W’s campus.
A few speakers during the public comment portion accused Cook of “fear-mongering.”
Just before, the interim chancellor spoke solemnly about what ending in-person classes would mean for the university and the city.
Cook said the university, as the “largest entity in town,” takes “a lot of the blame.”
“I feel very badly about all of this,” he said.
Council members and other speakers during the public comment period questioned how well the university communicated safety measures to its students.
While acknowledging the emailed communications and other social media postings shared with the campus community, Cook said there was more they could have done. Still, he added that this was an “unprecedented global crisis that none of us have any experience with.”
But he laid out the grim financial consequences of an uncontrolled virus on the university and community.
“If the university goes all remote in the next few weeks, our students, they disappear. And many of them may not come back,” Cook said. “And you might want to think about your businesses. You might want to think about your rental properties. We’re all in this together.
“We’re going to lose millions and millions of dollars in tuition revenue. It’ll put the university in jeopardy. It’ll put your businesses in jeopardy. It’ll put your rental properties in jeopardy,” he added.
“But if there’s anything we can do to improve our situation before it deteriorates any more, I hope we’ll put our great minds together and figure out what that might be,” he continued.
“I hope it’s not too late.”
Update: This story was updated at 11:35 p.m. Wednesday to include a few more details from the meeting. This story was also updated Thursday to reflect that Artanya Wesley is the permanent holder of her position, not the interim.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers plans by next year to vacate its longtime home on South River Street in downtown Janesville.
The IBEW Local 890 is working through a rezoning request in a plan to build a $2 million, 11,000-square-foot headquarters and apprentice training center on the city’s south side at 1900 Reuther Way near Beloit Avenue.
IBEW’s planned move means the union intends to sell the two-story building at 17 S. River St. where the union has operated for the last 20 years. The IBEW uses only part of the building downtown and leases the other portions as private offices.
IBEW Business Manager Leo Sokolik said a new facility on the south side would give the Janesville electrical contractors union more space to train a growing number of union and nonunion apprentices.
The current IBEW building, a modernist structure with architectural panels that shield the second story façade, stands at the epicenter of the downtown riverfront that has seen millions of dollars in public and private revitalization since 2015.
Sokolik said the IBEW’s more than 150% growth in apprentice members since 2000 justifies a new training center and headquarters. But he said the riverfront’s ongoing reinvention as a cultural and commercial city center has made the IBEW—a trade union—seem like less of a match to its downtown surroundings.
“A few years ago, we looked at the old Chase Bank up the street. That was before Blackhawk Credit Union bought it. We actually toured that bank and thought about what the IBEW could do to revitalize that building and maybe move in there. But we are just a construction union. We don’t really belong in downtown Janesville,” Sokolik said.
The city and private investors working under the city’s ARISE riverfront revitalization plan in 2018 capped off a dramatic redevelopment of a former commercial property along South River Street just south of the IBEW building. That area is now the west side ARISE Town Square, a city park that offers pedestrians scenic access to the Rock River.
A group of private investors this summer bought and tore down the decrepit former Town and Country restaurant building under plans to redevelop the site for residential or commercial use. As of this fall, that site across River Street from the IBEW building is cleared and growing grass.
The IBEW bought a triangular parcel that is split by Reuther Way, and the union intends to initially build on a 3-acre northwest portion of the property. For years, the union has run apprentice training downtown, but the space it uses for its lab in the South River Street building is limited and requires instructors to tear down and set up different equipment to run different types of training.
Sokolik said a new headquarters on the south side would allow the union to build out more and varied training spaces it could operate without having to constantly refit rooms for different training exercises.
Sokolik said that in the years coming out of the Great Recession, pent-up demand for commercial construction has driven growth in IBEW ranks—particularly in apprenticeships for union electrical work and independent construction electric occupation.
He believes that if the IBEW can break ground this fall on a new facility, it might be move-in ready in August 2021 when a wave of new apprenticeships is slated to come aboard for fall classes.
Under IBEW’s plans to market the South River Street building, Sokolik said he believes the IBEW would give one anchor tenant in the building, a behavioral health clinic, initial rights to buy the building outright.
Sokolik said it is possible that if the clinic doesn’t pursue purchase, the property could go on the open market.
Alicia Reid, who operates West Milwaukee Street art gallery Raven’s Wish, said she wasn’t aware the IBEW plans to build a new headquarters and leave downtown, but she told The Gazette she found the idea intriguing.
“It makes sense,” Reid said. “Maybe the property can get reused as commercial storefronts, retail or something.”
As coronavirus cases continue to increase across Wisconsin, especially on college campuses, Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday that he has not yet decided whether to extend his statewide mask mandate that is set to expire Sept. 28.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, whether we extend it or not,” Evers said of the order. “But we believe it was absolutely legal.”
Evers, a Democrat, defended the mask order while taking questions during an online Milwaukee Press Club event. The mask order took effect Aug. 1 and is currently being challenged by a conservative law firm. He said his frustration with those challenging the order, who claim it was an overreach of his powers, was “pretty high.”
“This is not about safety,” Evers said of the lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. “This is about, essentially, taking away the authority of the governor of the state of Wisconsin, whether it’s me or somebody else. It’s disappointing, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise to us.”
The latest Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed that 57% approve of Evers’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak so far. He fares better than president Donald Trump, whose approach received 41% approval.
Evers’ overall approval rating dropped from 57% in August to 51% this month. Trump’s approval rating was at 44%, consistent with where it has been since June.
The poll of 802 registered voters in Wisconsin was conducted between Aug. 30 and Monday. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
As of Wednesday, there had been more than 83,000 positive COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin and 1,183 deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services. Wisconsin’s death count is the 29th highest in the country overall and the 40th highest per capita at 20 deaths per 100,000 people.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by more than 11%. There were 189 new cases per 100,000 people in Wisconsin over the past two weeks, which ranks 23rd in the country for new cases per capita.
The Marquette poll showed that not everyone is anxious to get vaccinated for the virus.
Thirty-five percent of those polled said they would definitely get the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available, while 15% said they probably would not get vaccinated and 18% said they definitely would not.
Evers blamed Trump for sowing distrust of a vaccine, downplaying concerns about the virus and raising hope about a vaccine before the election.
“When you have a national leader who has vacillated up and down on whether there is such a thing as a pandemic and there isn’t, and it’s a hoax and it’s not, and now we’re making promises about Election Day ... it politicizes it in a way that it shows up now in the polls,” Evers said.
Evers said he will get vaccinated, but he wants front-line workers such as doctors, nurses, police and firefighters to get it before him. He added that he thinks the vaccine should be required, but “I just don’t know if it’s feasible in this political environment.”
Evers also said it was “unacceptable” that some people have yet to receive unemployment benefits they filed for when the pandemic began. He said he did not anticipate the backlog would continue into 2021.
Evers supports bringing students back to UW System campuses even as they see outbreaks of COVID-19 cases. The poll showed 51% were uncomfortable with reopening schools, up from 38% in June.
When asked whether he thought fans should be allowed at Green Bay Packers games this season, Evers said he would support whatever the team decides to do. The Packers are playing their first two home games—on Sept. 20 and Oct. 5—with no fans.
“I can’t imagine full stands at any point this year with the Packers,” Evers said. “That would seem to be unlikely unless there’s some magical vaccine and ... we clean this up this fall.”
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