Intoxicated driving arrests have dropped significantly in Rock County since the pandemic hit.
Both Janesville police and the Rock County Sheriff’s Office are reporting fewer operating-while-intoxicated arrests in recent weeks.
The sheriff’s office reports seven OWI arrests so far this month, compared to 16 for the same period in 2019.
Janesville reports 16 OWI arrests from March 15 through April 24, compared with 45 in the same period last year.
“I guess having the bars closed and the stay-at-home orders really reduces those OWI events,” said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore.
Sgt. Jimmy Holford, who supervises second-shift patrol in Janesville, said officers are seeing fewer incidents involving springtime exuberance and fewer parties and other gatherings than in the past.
They’re also stopping fewer cars for minor traffic offenses, such as a burned-out tail light. Sometimes those stops can lead to the discovery of an intoxicated driver, Holford said.
Dangerous driving still merits a stop, but officers are not stopping other violators in an effort to reduce the potential for being infected or infecting someone, Holford said.
The decision to stop a car or not is a balancing act: the danger of infection versus the danger the driver presents, he said.
Police calls for service are down, the two agencies report. Janesville saw 180 calls from March 15 to April 24 in 2019, compared with about 140 this year, Moore said.
Sheriff Troy Knudson said sheriff’s office calls are down 30%. He suggested one reason could be that this is not a good time to commit a burglary because of the likelihood that people are almost always home.
Arrests of all kinds decreased in Janesville: 438 last year compared with 204 this year, Moore said.
Police might not know about some crimes against children because many of those crimes are reported when children tell someone at school or when a teacher notices something suspicious.
“We just don’t have those eyes and ears in the community right now,” Moore said.
Domestic violence incidents are down in Janesville, 63 last year versus 38 this year, but that’s only the violence police know about.
“If victims can’t get away from abusers, there’s going to be less reporting and less arrests,” Moore said.
Knudson said the sheriff’s office saw no real change in domestic incidents: 11 in 2019 versus 10 in 2020.
Welfare checks—when police get a call from a relative or friend about someone who’s been out of touch—have dipped, too, Moore said: 342 in 2019 versus 242 in 2020.
Knudson said the sheriff’s office has received fewer calls for mental health crises: nine last year, four this year. And for emergency detoxification, 19 last year and none this year.
Neither agency reports any law enforcement officers contracting COVID-19.
Officers everywhere are trying to minimize contact with people. They will take complaints over the phone rather than in person. If they go to a residence, they often ask people to step outside.
If they have to go in, they wear masks and gloves.
The sheriff’s office is keeping a “reserve force” of deputies and correctional officers at home, where they can do some work by computer, so that they can fill the breach in case of an outbreak.
Janesville police have been isolated into smaller groups of officers who don’t interact. They have established substations around the city, at schools and other public buildings.
Traffic offenses have declined with fewer vehicles on the roads. Knudson said deputies handled 42 traffic accidents last year at this time and 35 this year.
Police are putting fewer people in jail, which is part of a nationwide trend, and it’s on purpose. A COVID-19 outbreak would be harder to control in a jail than in other parts of society, so jails are reducing their populations.
The Rock County Jail has put all of its work-release inmates on bracelets so they can serve their time at home, and law enforcement around the county is cooperating with guidelines so that fewer people are being held in jail pending court appearances.
The sheriff’s office consulted with the district attorney’s office and judges and then issued guidelines to all of the county’s law enforcement agencies, who are doing a “fantastic” job of following them, said jail Cmdr. Erik Chellevold.
People arrested on minor offenses are given court dates and released. Chellevold said in the past, some of them might have been held in the jail for up to 48 hours before appearing in court.
Most of them would have been released after their court appearances anyway, Chellevold said.
Those suspected of violent offenses are still being jailed, Holford said, but officials have to weigh the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the jail versus the danger of releasing someone who might commit a property crime but is unlikely to hurt anyone.
Knudson and Moore both said their officers have had to tell some business owners to shut down or alter their operations to comply with state orders, but the businesses have been cooperative.
Holford said policing done right involves personal interactions, and the new procedures make that harder to do.
“There is an element of personal relations face to face that I don’t think happens over the phone, so that’s a struggle,” he said.
Dan Wilcox—gray-haired, bespectacled, self-employed—doesn’t look like a renegade.
But in the recent weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilcox found himself operating with one toe on the wrong side of the law.
Over the last month, after the state ordered service businesses such as Wilcox’s Merry Groomer Pet Salon to temporarily close, the self-described animal lover said he risked bringing trouble down on his business.
He agreed a few times to travel to the driveways of his customers’ homes to trim their dogs’ nails.
“I was pushing it, going on the sly like that. I’ll admit it. But I needed the money, and it was $40. That adds up,” Wilcox said. “I guess now I know how speakeasies felt during the Prohibition.”
This week, Gov. Tony Evers eased some COVID-19 business restrictions in a plan to gradually allow the reopening of some service industries whose workers have limited contact with customers. Evers said businesses such as lawn mower repair shops, car washes and pet grooming salons would be allowed to reopen with some restrictions still in place.
The easing of the state’s business lock down is a relief for some small, service industry business operators such as Wilcox, who said he’d tried to file for unemployment as a self-employed business owner but was denied.
Wilcox plans to reopen his shop at 8 a.m. today. And this time, unlike during his clandestine nail-trimming ops of the last several weeks, Wilcox will be deemed by the state to be once again legit.
Wilcox hangs portraits on a Wall of Fame of all the pets he washes, trims and styles. He has a giant, plush chocolate Labrador retriever doll in the lobby right next to a basket of pet grooming magazines.
The first order of business Tuesday: Wilcox was calling, emailing and texting dozens of clients to reset waylaid appointments. Over the last seven weeks Merry Groomer has been closed, Wilcox has had to defer 264 appointments. It’s been harder for pet owners, probably, than for the dogs Wilcox trims, washes and beautifies, he said.
One regular customer last week posted on the Merry Groomer’s Facebook page some well-wishing and an impassioned mayday for a wash and trim appointment for her dog.
“Cooper looks like an Ewok. Please say you’ll be back in business after we all get thru this,” the customer wrote.
Wilcox has tried to stay out of the politics of the COVID-19 crisis, although he said one customer went to bat for him by lobbying local state lawmakers to push an exemption for pet groomers in the state’s temporary “essential” business restrictions.
Wilcox said he’s been avoiding watching or reading the news lately, so he missed Evers’ televised decision Monday to relax COVID-19 restrictions for some businesses, including his. He learned about it from a customer’s text message, which he said doubled as an appointment request for the customer’s dog.
He flipped on the TV, and even before Evers was done speaking, he’d gotten a half-dozen more requests for appointments.
“You go from the stress of ‘What am I going to do?’ to stress of ‘Uh-oh, I’ve got to do this,’” Wilcox said.
One west side lawnmower and small engine shop operator told The Gazette during a phone interview Tuesday he already had lawnmower service customers backed up in line at his shop.
It was raining Tuesday, the temperature 65 degrees. That means the grass in people’s lawns will soon bolt beyond comprehension. And people had quickly learned that lawnmower repair shops could begin operating again.
The operator, who did not give his name, indicated that for the last month he’d been unable to take new orders for service because of COVID-19 business restrictions.
His business is one in which the service end requires very little contact with customers. Yet, he said, COVID-19 rules for essential versus nonessential businesses have left gray areas difficult for business operators to decode.
“We’ve gotten letters from Honda and all of our manufacturers saying that we were and are deemed essential. So, he (Evers) might have been referring (on Monday) to specifically lawnmower repairs, but nobody does just lawnmowers. Nobody. You do the whole thing—water pumps, generators and everything else,” he said.
At the Merry Groomer, Wilcox has a new setup at his shop. Instead of operating his lobby as a customer hangout while people wait for their pets to be groomed, Wilcox has a rear entrance cordoned off with a desk.
He plans to receive people’s dogs through the back entrance and give customers invoices at the start of appointments. He said customers can then pay over the phone and later pick up their dogs to limit time inside his shop.
Wilcox said he’s not sure how long he might have that setup running, but he said he’s preparing customers for the possibility that another COVID-19 outbreak might hit later this year. He is beseeching people to consider getting their dogs’ hair or fur trimmed as short as possible or, in dog groomer terms, “a summer cut.”
One customer Tuesday afternoon showed up with her small dog. She hadn’t realized her pet’s appointment had been deferred because of the pandemic.
Wilcox told the woman he couldn’t legally run salon operations until Wednesday morning.
He gave the woman a reminder of her new appointment time then stooped down to give the woman’s dog some baby talk through his cloth face mask.
“I will see you next Tuesday!” Wilcox said.
Kathleen Ann “Kathy” Baer
Frank Jerome Splinter
Thirty-four closed Wisconsin state parks and recreational areas will reopen Friday, but their bathrooms will remain closed to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by limiting enclosed spaces where the virus could be more easily transmitted.
“We’re asking people to go to the restroom before they enter the park,” Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole said Tuesday
Gov. Tony Evers closed 38 parks and recreational areas April 10, citing overcrowding that could hasten the spread of the virus, vandalism, mounting trash and dwindling cleaning supplies. Numerous changes being put in place will allow for a safe reopening of the parks, Evers said. Those changes include reducing park hours, temporarily closing some of the most popular parks if they become overcrowded and keeping the bathrooms closed.
Mark Aquino, state park manager for the DNR, said that maintaining a 6-foot distance in park bathrooms would be impossible.
“Prepare in advance for your visit and stay close to your community and visit the parks closest to your community,” he said.
Towers, shelters, campsites, playgrounds, nature centers, headquarters, contact stations and concessions buildings will also remain closed for the duration of Evers’ stay-at-home order, which currently runs until May 26. That is the day after the Memorial Day holiday weekend, traditionally the kickoff of the summer season, the busiest time of the year for most parks.
Enforcing social distancing in parks, particularly on narrow trails far from where any park ranger might be able to intervene, will largely be left up to visitors, Cole said. He said he was confident park visitors would act responsibly.
“Massive crowds create trauma for people who are afraid of this unseen enemy,” he said.
Evers has faced increasing pressure from Republicans and the state’s business community to loosen his stay-at-home order. The announcement of park openings came the day after Evers also allowed the reopening of nonessential businesses that can offer contactless curbside drop-off and pickup, such as dog groomers and small-engine repair shops.
Annual park passes will now be required and won’t be for sale at the parks. The parks will open as usual at 6 a.m., but they will close four hours earlier, at 7 p.m. They will all be closed on Wednesdays for maintenance. Hunting and fishing will be allowed on all open properties in accordance with the legal season structure and hours, but access might be limited to walk-in or by water.
Boat launches are open at state properties and all trails are open, including those for ATVs. Evers’ order on Monday allowed for the reopening of businesses that rent ATVs and other recreational equipment, including kayaks.
“Outdoor recreation is important for both physical and mental health, and I know how important it is to Wisconsinites to get outside and enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources and spring weather,” Evers said in a statement.
The closures included some of the state’s most popular hiking and camping destinations and were all in southern and southeastern Wisconsin, nearest to the state’s biggest cities, Madison and Milwaukee. Popular parks that will reopen include Devil’s Lake, Governor Dodge and Kettle Moraine.
The Gibraltar Rock, Pewit’s Nest, Parfrey’s Glen and Dells of The Wisconsin River natural areas will remain closed. Evers said that was for the health and safety of the public and staff and for the integrity of the property. Two state trails in the Madison area that Evers originally announced were closing never did because they are managed cooperatively with multiple partners and municipalities, the state Department of Natural Resources said.