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Wisconsin governor orders masks statewide amid virus surge


Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday issued a statewide mask mandate amid a spike in coronavirus cases, setting up a conflict with Republican legislative leaders and some conservatives who oppose such a requirement and successfully sued to end the governor’s safer-at-home order earlier this year.

Evers, a Democrat, declared a new public health emergency and ordered the wearing of masks for anyone age 5 and older starting Saturday for all enclosed spaces except a person’s home. The new order also applies to outdoor bars and restaurants, except when people are eating or drinking.

Anyone who violates the order would be subject to a $200 fine. It is scheduled to run until Sept. 28.

“This virus doesn’t care about any town, city, or county boundary, and we need a statewide approach to get Wisconsin back on track,” Evers said in a statement, citing the recent rise in cases across the state.

The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court in May tossed out an order from Evers’ health secretary closing most nonessential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he opposes a statewide mandate, but he indicated that he wouldn’t sue to stop it like he did the safer-at-home order.

“There are certainly constitutional questions here,” Vos said. “I would expect legal challenges from citizen groups.”

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which has sued Evers several times, said the governor “lacks the legal authority” to issue the order. Esenberg stopped short of promising a lawsuit, saying he was reviewing it.

Republican state Sen. Steve Nass of La Grange, one of the Legislature’s most conservative members, called for lawmakers to meet in an emergency session to kill the order, which he called “illegal and unnecessary.” Evers said he would welcome the Legislature meeting to address the pandemic, which it hasn’t done since mid-April. But he said it was a “sad commentary” that Nass wanted to reconvene just to kill the mask order.

“Obviously he doesn’t believe that masks matter,” Evers said. “That’s fine. He can be one of those people that flouts the order. But to come in and have the Republicans say essentially we don’t believe in science, it’s pretty risky business. It’s risky political business and risky health business.”

Vos did not say whether the Legislature would reconvene to kill the order.

Evers has repeatedly cited the earlier Supreme Court ruling as a reason for his reluctance to join 32 other states that have mask mandates. However, the May ruling determined that the state health secretary overstepped her authority with the safer-at-home order; the court did not address the governor’s power to issue public health emergencies.

The state’s high court was controlled 5-2 by conservatives when it struck down the earlier order on a split 4-3 decision. But on Saturday, when the mask order takes effect, Justice-elect Jill Karofsky will join the court, narrowing the conservative majority to 4-3 and increasing the odds of the order surviving a legal challenge.

Evers said the rise in COVID-19 cases, not Karofsky’s joining the court, and the fact that not enough people wore masks voluntarily motivated him to act now. Evers had been under pressure from local governments, and even some Democrats, to issue a statewide order. Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee started a petition for a statewide mandate.

“The bottom line is we need to keep people safe, and this is one way to do it,” Larson said. “We hope the Supreme Court agrees with us. You never know—it may never end up in the Supreme Court.”

Numerous cities and counties across Wisconsin have already instituted mask mandates, including Milwaukee and Dane counties, Green Bay, Racine, Superior, and Whitewater. Evers’ order doesn’t pre-empt local governments from enacting even stricter ordinances.

Wisconsin has had more than 52,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 919 deaths from the disease since the pandemic started. That death count is the 28th-highest in the country 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 90, an increase of more than 11%.

The virus, although still heavily concentrated in urban areas, is spreading to more rural counties that had largely avoided the disease.

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Study: Low-income woes still here despite improvements


More than 1 of every 3 Rock County households struggle to pay for basic necessities, according to a study released this month by the United Way.

The numbers come from the ALICE Project, which mines federal data to derive a “survival budget” and income levels in an area.

The project recently released its latest report, based on 2018 data.

The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the economic picture for many, and it’s likely that today more people endure the stress of not being able to provide for their families, said Mary Fanning-Penny, CEO of United Way Blackhawk Region.

The 2018 data shows 36% of county residents were poor or earned more than the federal poverty level but still could not afford essential living expenses.

That’s an improvement from 2016, when 42% of county residents were found to be unable to pay for necessities.

Fanning-Penny noted Rock County trends slightly worse than the statewide average, which was 34% of people in poverty or meeting the ALICE threshold.

The 36% figure includes the 11% of county residents living below the poverty level and 25% who are considered “ALICE,” which means asset limited, income constrained, employed.

This group has been called “working poor,” although many poor people also work.

Fanning-Penny said there’s no magic solution: “It really takes a collaborative approach. We need policy makers and academics and education partners. We need business and the private sector and the social-service providers all working together to create systemic change.

“We want to be careful to not communicate that this is just a report on wages. It’s not. This is a holistic examination of the conditions of our community,” she said.

Needs include affordable, flexible child care and opportunities for education to advance on the job—all needs that United Way supports in the funding it provides to a variety of community agencies, Fanning-Penny noted.

Fanning-Penny refers to the ALICE group as a person:

“Alice is vulnerable to just one emergency, whether that’s one health care crisis or one car repair or one harsh storm or one global pandemic, and when that crisis happens, Alice may not be able to get to work … and Alice can quickly spiral into poverty. So if our ALICE families can’t afford the basics, they also can’t help stimulate our economy. And so when Alice falls into poverty, that creates a greater strain on local services, and if Alice can’t save for the future, then we all bear that cost. ...

“What we know is, Alice is working. These are families paying taxes. They are working, possibly more than one job,” she added.

The ALICE report notes that from 2017 to 2018, unemployment fell to historic lows in the state and the rest of the country and gross domestic product grew.

But wages rose only slightly, and the state saw a record increase in the number of low-wage jobs, Fanning-Penny said.

Statewide, 60% of the workforce earned hourly wages in 2018, Fanning-Penny said, and 59% of jobs paid less than $20 an hour.

The ALICE report helps the United Way focus its grants on initiatives that can have the greatest impact, Fanning-Penny said.

Those grants pay for the 211 helpline, child care scholarships, job-skills training, rent and food assistance, among others, she said.

Despite an annual investment of more than $1 million in such programs, needs remain unfilled, Fanning-Penny said.

United Way wants people to care about the ALICE group, believing that will lead to a solution.

“One of the best ways for people to be a part of that solution is to get involved, whether they give to United Way or donate their time to other nonprofit agencies or talk to their friends and neighbors about this,” she said. “Becoming aware and empathetic and involved is what we would hope is the result of making this information available.”

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Longtime Van Galder bus employee loved children


When Therese Coogan began driving students to school for Van Galder Bus Company in late 1986, she didn’t plan to stay long.

She had three small children, and her husband, Micky, worked at General Motors.

“It was the perfect job for a mom,” Coogan recalled. “I remember doing my first route and thought I didn’t like it much.”

As the days went on, the children grew on her.

“I liked it more and more,” Coogan said. “You got to know the kids. … And here I am.”

After 37 years as a driver and then as assistant school bus dispatcher, she officially retires Friday.

“I’m having a real tough time with this,” Coogan said, “but I know it is time for me to be out.”

The COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person classes earlier this year, and she stopped coming into the office.

But the 70-year-old leaves behind a notable career that touched many lives while she worked in the background.

In some cases, she has either bused or planned for busing for three generations of students.

“It was fun,” Coogan said. “That’s what makes it hard now, knowing I won’t go back. Work was my home away from home.”

Each year, the company bused anywhere from 600 to 700 students who were on rural routes or had special needs.

Coogan organized the routes and figured out which children rode which bus.

“That is stuff I loved,” she said. “I talked to parents all the time.”

She knew the drivers and the children well and worked hard to solve challenges. If a child had a problem on a route, she tried putting the child on another route. If a route grew too large, she split it so buses were not crossing paths.

Because of her route work, she had no trouble locating streets.

“She knows the city of Janesville better than any other person I know,” said Steve Schroeder, Van Galder’s school bus manager. “She is always my go-to version of Janesville MapQuest.”

When Coogan saw a child’s name, she could see in her mind where the youngster lived and what school the child attended.

“When she put kids on a route,” Schroeder said, “she put them in the most efficient order so there was no backtracking.”

He called Coogan “an invaluable resource to me and the school bus drivers at Van Galder” because of her extensive knowledge of student transportation.

Schroeder said many special- needs children do not like riding the bus, so it is important to get them on and off as quickly as possible.

Coogan’s first concern was always making sure that the kids were taken care of on the bus and that the driver was a good fit, Schroeder said.

“She wanted them to get home safely and as quickly as possible,” he added. “She was always about the kids having a positive experience on the bus.”

Coogen also helped with daily motor coach trips.

“She would help with everything and anything,” Schroeder said. “This last year, we had her coming in at 5 a.m., but she was there at 4:30 a.m. She loved coming to work, and she did a good job of making sure people around her were successful, too.”

Al Fugate, Van Galder’s president and general manager, worked with Coogan for 25 years.

“The words consistent, reliable, dependable don’t really do justice to Therese,” he said. “She was such a stable part of our business. She was our rock through a lot of wild growth years and for some of our more turbulent times, like 9/11, when we didn’t know what the next day would bring.”

Fugate added: “We can’t thank her enough for her service over the years to the students of Janesville.”

Coogan has parting advice:

“I used to tell my kids when they were growing up, if you find something to do that you like, you never have to work,” she said. “I never felt as though I was working. The drivers used to make fun of me and said that my retirement home was down there at Van Galder.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux

Obituaries and death notices for July 31, 2020

Duane L. Ballmer

James Robert Hammel

Tanya Grace Kasten

Susan P. Shank

Record collapse in GDP points to challenges for economic recovery — and Trump


U.S. economic output fell at a stunning 32.9% annual rate in the second quarter—a level not seen since the Great Depression, according to data released Thursday.

The history-making contraction in the nation’s gross domestic product, which followed a 5% drop in the first quarter, was widely expected after the coronavirus outbreak shut down large swaths of the economy and led to massive job losses in the spring.

By comparison, during the worst of the Great Recession, GDP—the total of all goods and services produced in the country—shrank at an annualized 8.4% pace in the final quarter of 2008. The single largest annualized quarterly decline since the Commerce Department’s records began in 1947 was 10% in early 1958.

The latest steep decline reflects what most economists see as the bottom of the recession. The new numbers include data from the mini-recovery that occurred before the latest surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now with the coronavirus rampaging over large areas of the country, measures of consumer spending, small-business activity and job openings are slowing again, casting a shadow over economic conditions many Americans will face as Election Day draws near.

A separate report Thursday from the Labor Department showed new unemployment claims rose last week to 1.43 million. It was the second straight week of increase—after about three months of steady declines—and brought the total number of people who have applied for jobless benefits since mid-March to more than 54 million.

Taken together, the new economic reports give new urgency to lawmakers who are wrangling over a new coronavirus relief package.

The nearly $3 trillion worth of pandemic relief measures approved earlier by Congress has clearly buoyed the economy, but the effect of those initial programs is ebbing.

Many small businesses are running out of loans and grants that kept paychecks going out to at least some workers. State governments are financially distressed. And millions of jobless workers will see their enhanced unemployment benefit checks end this week.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said Wednesday that additional fiscal support is “essential” for the recovery. He spoke particularly about the hardships of unemployment, which has fallen disproportionately on minorities, women and low-wage workers in service industries such as hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues.

“Many of those people are going to find it hard (that) they can’t go back to their old job. There won’t be enough jobs for them. So I think those people are going to need support,” Powell said during a remote news conference. “I can’t say what the exact level should be. It is not our role. But they are going to need support if they are to be able to pay their bills, to continue spending money, to remain in their current rental house or apartment or house if they own it.”

The forecasting firm IHS Markit is predicting the third quarter to grow at a 19.1% annual rate. But as much as that might represent a substantial rebound, analysts said that’s not what many people on the ground will be feeling. The unemployment rate was 11.1% in June and is likely to remain in double digits through the fall.

Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of U.S. economic activity, fell nearly 35% in the second quarter. Business investments and exports tumbled, as well. The only major component of GDP that grew over the quarter was government thanks to the deficit-financed spending to help businesses and households.

“We fell down a huge hole in March and April, and we were only able to climb partway out,” said Ethan Harris, head of global economics research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “The challenge is that we’re now entering a period where you’re kind of stuck at the halfway point with the economy starting to level off again.”

Unless the recovery falls off the rails, which few experts expect, the pandemic-induced recession could be one of the shortest in history, technically speaking. But the effects will be long-lasting.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office doesn’t see real GDP returning to pre-pandemic levels until the middle of 2022, and it’ll be years after that before the economy returns to full employment.

For President Donald Trump, the pandemic has undercut his plan to campaign for re-election on the strength of the economy. Since the pandemic, he has fallen well behind former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in national polls as well as in surveys of voters in key swing states. And analysts say it’ll be a hard uphill climb for Trump, even if he can generate strong GDP numbers and lower unemployment.

“My sense is people’s perceptions of a recovering economy aren’t going to be especially good,” said Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who found that a recovering economy in the waning months of George H.W. Bush’s re-election bid in 1992 wasn’t enough.

“It usually takes a while for people to perceive that kind of improvement. You don’t start to feel it in your real life until after the uptick has taken place and is being sustained for a while,” Hetherington said.

He cautioned that this pandemic-driven economy could be an outlier given the sudden and extraordinary set of events. And Trump might be able to deliver strong GDP numbers in the third quarter, as the president has predicted.

Still, Hetherington said, “If those numbers don’t square with people’s perceptions and their experience with the economy, they’re not going to make a hill of beans’ worth of difference.”