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Local bars, restaurants perk up at idea of selling carryout cocktails


Cozumel Mexican Restaurant manager Miguel Lopez says getting the state’s permission to sell carryout margaritas probably won’t backfill the 30% decrease in business he saw during parts of the pandemic.

But he thinks carryout margaritas with an order of burritos certainly won’t hurt business.

A bill Gov. Tony Evers signed into law last week allows licensed bars and restaurants to sell mixed alcoholic drinks and wine in sealed carryout containers, starting Monday. Lopez and others say they’re still examining the law change, including considering what kinds of containers to buy for carryout alcoholic drinks.

“Even before the pandemic, for many years, our customers have asked us all the time for margaritas to go,” Lopez said. “Sometimes they didn’t understand the situation that we weren’t allowed to sell alcohol like that, even though a margarita might go very good with a meal to go.

“Especially now, I think the law change is a good idea to do something extra to help business a little bit.”

Wisconsin joins 34 other states that allow bars and restaurants to sell cocktails, mixed drinks and wine to carryout customers in sealed containers. Wisconsin’s law change had bipartisan support from lawmakers, although the Wisconsin Grocers Association opposed the bill, The Associated Press reported.

Restaurants weathering massive revenue losses during the pandemic pushed for the law change for a year.

Rep. David Steffen, a Republican Assembly member from the Green Bay area who co-authored the bill, said in a statement that struggling restaurant and bar owners are saying the “$30 to $50 a day in revenue through cocktails to go can make the difference between staying open or closing forever.”

Steffen said other states haven’t seen intoxicated-driving problems stemming from the sale of to-go containers.

Some local bar-and-grill restaurants say they have sold to-go drink kits with sealed mini-bottles of alcohol and nonalcoholic mixers during the pandemic. That added a revenue stream when they saw a falloff in dine-in customers but an increase in curbside and carryout orders.

The new state law allows restaurants and bars to sell to-go alcoholic drinks as long as the containers have “tamper-evident seals … a device or material that is used to securely and fully close off a container, with no perforations, in such a manner that access to the contents of the container cannot be gained without showing evidence of tampering.”

The law does not allow delivery of alcoholic drinks.

That seems to put the onus on consumers to avoid opening a sealed alcohol container and consuming it on their drive home, which is not allowed under state law.

It’s a gray area, but one that gives some establishments pause before they dive into offering to-go drinks.

Jessica Carlson, who manages My Apartment Pub & Grill on the west side, said she is still looking into the law and which containers and seals might pass muster.

“We’d want to make sure all our bases are covered,” she said. “There’s still that risk if somebody opens it in the car, and we don’t want to be the ones liable. So we’ve got to make sure we’d be following all the proper steps.”

Xochitl Velazquez, a bartender at Mo’s TAASBAG, a sports pub and grill on Milton Avenue, said she has heard only a few patrons talking about the new law over the weekend. She said she’s not sure what the market might be for curbside or carryout drinks, but she is intrigued by the idea.

Mabt Nou of Janesville, who sat with a bottle of beer at the U-shaped bar at TAASBAG on Monday, said he thinks neighborhood bars and restaurants have worked hard and could use a boost.

But Nou said he is conflicted. He wonders if the pandemic-driven trend of curbside and to-go ordering has sidestepped a key part of the restaurant bill: the tip.

He worries that some consumers have grown desensitized when it comes to tipping.

“It’s been a tough business. If you know a bartender, you kind of want to come in to support them, to tip them, in person. To help them out,” Nou said. “That bartender, you know, who makes the best old fashioned is still out there trying to earn a living.

“Then again, we’ve had one pandemic now, so we’ve all seen what can happen. What if someday the state had to put a dining capacity cap back in place? Then drinks to go would be the way you could hang on. It would really seem like a lifeline.”

GIFTS Men's Shelter seeking second director since start of 2020


GIFTS Men’s Shelter is hunting for a new director, the second time in a year the nonprofit homeless shelter has seen turnover in its top ranks, a board member confirmed Friday.

GIFTS board member Sarah Hawthorne said she is temporarily directing the 42-bed shelter on Janesville’s northwest side. She confirmed the shelter has launched a national search for a new leader after Director John Koesema left earlier this month after just six months at the helm.

Koesema came to GIFTS last summer after a decade of running an urban shelter on the south side of Dallas.

Hawthorne, who has been on the GIFTS board since 2020 and runs a Beloit social service nonprofit, said Koesema left the shelter in early March. She said he resigned, but she didn’t know details.

GIFTS has posted the opening nationally, including through the Citygate Network, a national consortium of homeless shelters and rescue organizations.

Hawthorne said GIFTS has learned that Koesema might have accepted a new job in another state, but she said the shelter is still working to confirm that information.

Koesema took over GIFTS in July 2020, replacing former director Stephanie Burton, who left that March to move closer to her family, shelter officials have said.

He arrived in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shelter officials said had limited the number of men who could stay at the 24-hour shelter.

As of Friday afternoon, Hawthorne said GIFTS is operating at a 42-bed capacity, which represents an expansion of the capacity officials previously reported.

But because the shelter runs under Rock County’s public health guideline of 50% occupancy, it has capped the number of people who can stay there at one time to about 20, Hawthorne said.

She said the shelter had about 10 guests Friday, but the number has “fluctuated” in the last few months. At one time last spring, Hawthorne said, about 20 people where using the shelter.

In its March newsletter, GIFTS said it had begun offering guests COVID-19 vaccinations. The men are tested for COVID-19 first and aren’t allowed to stay unless they test negative for the disease.

Late last year, GIFTS said it had seen no cases of infected residents. Hawthorne said the shelter continues to limit contact between the men and volunteers during the pandemic, even as vaccinations have begun to roll out more broadly.

She said the challenge hasn’t been the cap on occupancy as much as the ongoing need to test prospective guests for COVID-19.

“They have to have a negative COVID test in order to enter the program, so that’s really the hiccup right now. Because they have to get the COVID test, wait for the results and then come in,” Hawthorne said. “And then by the time they get the results, they’ve found shelter elsewhere—or, you know, temporary situations.”

IUPUI freshman Jasmin Speth, right, talks with a teammate during a game this season. Speth, the youngest of three sisters who graduated from Delavan-Darien High, is playing on the same team as both her older siblings—Jennah and Jasmin—for the first time in their lives.

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Rock County Public Health Department reports variant strain of COVID-19


Rock County is experiencing a rise in new COVID-19 cases as a variant strain of the novel coronavirus has been detected in the county, according to the Rock County Public Health Department.

The health department reports that the SARS-CoV-2 Variant B.1.1.7, first found in England in November, was recently found in the county.

Rock County health educator Shari Faber said the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the agency that reports variant testing results to local municipalities, has informed the health department of only one known variant case in the county so far.

“Genome sequencing is only done on a portion of the positive cases, so we do not know how many cases there are in Rock County,” Faber said.

Statewide, there have been 87 reported cases of the variant, she said.

Beloit Health System CEO Tim McKevett said the news of a variant case in Rock County is “concerning but not totally unexpected.”

“We are prepared to treat positive COVID patients regardless of if it’s a variant case,” he said.

Researchers think this new strain spreads more rapidly and easily than the original strain, the health department said. The B.1.1.7 variant also might be associated with an increased risk of death, but more studies are needed to confirm that, the department said.

“With this more contagious variant in our area and a recent uptick in cases, it is very important that everyone continue to follow the prevention guidance,” Rock County Health Officer Katrina Harwood said in a news release. “Wear a mask in public places, keep your distance, wash your hands, minimize indoor activities with anyone outside of your household and get the vaccine when it is available to you.”

Based on initial evidence, Faber said the three vaccines approved for use in the United States “effectively reduce the risk of COVID-19 for all of the circulating variants.”

McKevett said the health system has administered about 1,000 doses a week and more than 16,000 doses since December.

Rock County is averaging just over 14 new cases each day, which is slightly up from past weeks, Rock County epidemiologist Nick Zupan said.

“This is a little bit higher for what we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks when we were down in the single digits,” Zupan said during a March 25 media briefing.

Zupan said the increase in new cases was “not something we are overly concerned about,” but he emphasized that the health department would monitor the activity.

“It’s definitely a trend we want to monitor to make sure we are reacting appropriately,” Zupan said.

Faber said the health department does not know how many of the newly reported cases are related to the variant.

“We moved from Phase 1 to Phase 2 on March 2, reducing some restrictions,” she said. “The more contagious variant is now circulating. After a long downward trend in cases and the availability of the vaccine, people may have become more relaxed with the precautions that they are taking.”

The B.1.1.7 variant was first reported in the United States in December and was first identified in Wisconsin in January.

People can learn more about the SARS-CoV-2 variants in Wisconsin by visiting dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/variants.htm#counter.

'I can't trust them anymore': Residents of Fort Atkinson shocked that 2019 petroleum spill by Enbridge went unreported for over a year

Residents near the site of a 2019 pipeline leak are questioning why the Canadian oil company in charge of the line didn’t notify them sooner.

Enbridge Energy waited more than a year to notify the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources of a spill on one of its pipelines running through southcentral Wisconsin, leaving residents wondering if their wells could be impacted by petroleum products.

Line 13, also known as the Southern Lights Pipeline, starts in Manhattan, Illinois, and runs through Wisconsin and Minnesota, delivering products to Enbridge’s Edmonton terminal in Alberta, Canada, according to the company’s website. The line transports 180,000 barrels per day of petroleum diluent, which is used to dilute heavy oils for easier transportation.

The spill took place in Fort Atkinson, on Blackhawk Island Road near the Rock River and Lake Koshkonong.

According to a report from Enbridge, a whistle alarm alerted the company to the leak on April 26, 2019. After that, samples were collected from around the site to determine where the leak was coming from. It wasn’t until May 17 that the leak was identified as coming from a faulty elbow joint and stopped. The valve was replaced June 2.

The company continued to excavate the site and test soil and nearby wells for contamination, but the leak was not reported to the DNR until July 31, 2020, over a year after the spill occurred. In November, the company reached the conclusion that 29 to 33 barrels of diluent were released into the ground.

Trevor Nobile, a field operations director for the DNR, said that while agency rules ask companies to report spills right away, it’s not uncommon for there to be a delay in reporting until more is known. But, he said, Enbridge has been proactive about meeting with the agency and keeping up with testing and remediation of the site.

“They have a robust plan as far as the investigation and remediation completed to date,” he said.

Residents worry about impact of spill

The Jefferson County Board Law Enforcement and Emergency Management Committee got an update from Enbridge employees last week and listened to public comment from residents concerned for their health.

Kenneth Pundsack, who lives less than half a mile from the site of the spill, said he is worried not only about himself but his neighbors and their farm animals.

“What are we to do about our wells? I would think Enbridge would be advisable to have us test our water to ensure that our wells are safe and sound,” he said via Zoom during the meeting.

Another nearby resident, Victoria Hachtel, said she was angry and frustrated with the way the company failed to notify people.

“I’ve lived here for 22 years and I have always felt that Enbridge was a good neighbor,” Hachtel said during the meeting. “At this point, when we found out this late in the game, I can’t trust them anymore. And I don’t know exactly at this point which direction we have to take because anything that comes out of their mouth at this point is not truthful. ... I am very disgusted and hurt by the way they’ve treated us.”

The company is going to continue remediation efforts at the site, said Juli Kellner, a communications staff member for Enbridge, and said the company will continue to work with landowners impacted by the spill.

“The safety of local residents and the environment is our main focus,” she said in an email to the Journal Sentinel.

Environmental groups expressed worry over the spill, as well as the amount of time the company took to notify the state.

“The Jefferson County spill on Line 13 shows the threat Enbridge pipelines pose to water in Wisconsin,” said Tony Wilkin Gibart, the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates.

The spill isn’t the only time the company has drawn concern from communities.

The company’s past efforts to use aggressive measures to obtain land to expand pipelines have drawn opposition.

In 2015, Enbridge successfully lobbied Wisconsin Republicans to change the state’s eminent domain law to make it easier for the company to turn to the government to force property owners to allow construction crews to bury new pipes across their land, despite traditional Republican support for private property laws.

The company tried to use those powers in its efforts to reroute another of its pipelines—Line 5, around the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa after the easements on which the pipeline resides expired. Enbridge eventually decided to use another route where property owners voluntarily sold easements to the company.

Line 5 was also in the news after damage to the pipeline was discovered in the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. A judge in 2020 ordered that the company stop the flow of oil in the pipe but later allowed Enbridge to resume.

Wilkin Gibart also pointed to Line 5 as an example of the risk Enbridge’s operations pose in Wisconsin.

“Line 5 in northern Wisconsin has spilled more than a million gallons of oil since it was first built,” Wilkin Gibart said.