Stephen Meyer broke out in a wide smile Wednesday afternoon as birds chirped and water flowed beneath the Griinke Foot Bridge at Beckman Mill County Park.
Meyer’s smile was reciprocated by others as the court commissioner presided over six weddings at the park.
Courthouse weddings were moved Wednesday to the park because of COVID-19.
The weddings were the first since the county chose to suspend all weddings at the courthouse after the large amount of human contact in the clerk’s office following the April 7 elections.
Meyer has been marrying couples in Rock County for 28 years and said he enjoys working with the people he weds.
He was happy to be back Wednesday prompting couples through their vows.
“I just love the whole thing. It’s very nice to meet people, both the people that are getting married and the folks that are with them,” he said.
He said with a laugh that while COVID-19 might cause some complications, quarantine could offer newlyweds an early test.
“This is a good time to test the early stages of the marriage,” he said.
Nathan and Dorothy Lewis of Janesville were among the couples who became husband and wife Wednesday. The pair met at work and have dated for more than four years.
“Basically, everything we had got canceled because of the virus, and I just kind of stumbled across that the city of Janesville was doing this amazing thing, and I was just ready for her to be my wife and thought we’d take advantage of it,” Nathan said.
The couple had to cancel their original venue, cake and wedding date.
Dorothy’s family from Kenya was supposed to be in attendance for the original wedding celebration, but COVID-19 required them to stay put.
“We just hope it’s something positive,” Nathan said. “I mean, that’s the one thing because of our plans I tried to keep pushing through like, hey, we’re going to get married, this is going to be this positive thing that people are looking forward to.
“And unfortunately it got canceled, so we can still kind of have this positive moment. It’s not exactly the way we hoped with bringing all our family together, but we still got to be married and have this positive moment together,” he said.
The newlyweds plan to hold a larger celebration after health restrictions allow gatherings.
Each couple was allowed to bring no more than six people, making nine the maximum number of people, including Meyer, at the weddings.
Jason and Lindsey Lisiecki of Janesville also met at work and married Wednesday at the park.
The Lisieckis were ready to go to the courthouse to be married a few months ago, but it was closed because of COVID-19. When they learned it was reopening, they rushed to get on the list for Wednesday’s ceremonies, Lindsey said.
It might have been a few months later than Lindsey originally planned and in a different manner, but she said Wednesday her wedding was a blessing.
“I’m feeling amazing. There’s no other words for it,” she said.
“I married my best friend today.”
Wisconsin election officials inched toward sending absentee ballot request forms to voters Wednesday, but they put off a decision after Republicans and Democrats split on how many people should get the ballot applications.
Democrats on the Wisconsin Elections Commission want to send the applications to about 2.7 million people, the vast majority of the state’s registered voters.
The Republican chairman agreed ballot applications should be sent out.
But he doesn’t want to send them to those who appear likely to have previously voted by mail or who live in communities that are already planning to mail absentee ballot forms to their residents. That would result in ballots going to 1.7 million or fewer people.
The commission consists of three Republicans and three Democrats. It was unclear Wednesday if the commissioners could reach a deal on the issue when they meet again in about a week.
The commission is not considering the mass mailing of actual ballots. Rather, it is weighing sending applications that voters could fill out and return with a copy of a photo ID. Those voters would then be sent an absentee ballot.
The idea has come to the fore because of a surge in interest in mail voting amid the coronavirus outbreak. Health experts say absentee voting helps reduce the risk of the spread of the virus because many fewer people will be gathering in person.
Nearly 1 million people voted by mail in the April 7 election for state Supreme Court, far outstripping the previous record. Even more are expected to vote absentee for the presidential election in November.
Wednesday’s debate came hours after President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan for its decision to send absentee ballot applications to its voters.
“Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” the president tweeted. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader of the Wisconsin Senate and a candidate for Congress, came out against the idea here.
“It does not make sense to centralize absentee voting in Madison when that funding could be better utilized by the clerks themselves,” Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.
Despite that GOP opposition, the Republican chairman of the commission, Dean Knudson, showed support for sending the applications to some voters. But he did not want them to go to as many voters as Democrats on the commission.
He said he saw hope that the two parties can reach a deal soon.
“We’re all on board with the concept,” Knudson said. “We’ll come together on it. I’m pretty sure we will.”
Differences remainTheir differences remain significant.
Democrats support a plan from the Election Commission staff that would send absentee ballot request forms to most registered voters.
The voters would receive information about the state’s online portal for requesting absentee ballots, myvote.wi.gov, as well as a paper copy of the form they could mail in along with a copy of their photo ID to get an absentee ballot.
Under the plan, the mailings would not go to those who already have absentee ballot requests on file. They also would not be sent to about 129,000 registered voters who are believed to have moved.
Knudson wants to exclude those same voters, as well as about 1 million who have a photo ID on file with their local clerk, which suggests they might have voted by mail previously. State law requires voters to provide a copy of a photo ID the first time they vote by mail, but not other times they vote by mail.
Knudson said he doesn’t want to send the applications to those voters because they should already be familiar with how to vote by mail and can request an absentee ballot if they want one.
Knudson also doesn’t want the state to send the forms to voters in communities that plan to do so on their own.
That’s meant to prevent two mailings from going out. But taking that approach would result in some municipalities having to pay for the mailings themselves while others would see it covered for them.
If the state commission does not act, each municipality on its own can decide whether to send the applications, as a handful of communities did in the April 7 election.
Meagan Wolfe, executive director of the commission, recommended sending the request forms to avoid voter confusion. If the state doesn’t send a mailing, numerous outside groups—including political parties—will, and some of them will give voters inaccurate information about how to vote absentee, she said.
“This is our opportunity to educate voters,” Wolfe said.
The plan backed by Democrats would cost $2.1 million. An estimate hasn’t been offered for Knudson’s idea, but it would be less expensive.
The commissioners’ plan would pay for the effort using a chunk of the $7.3 million Congress allocated to Wisconsin for increased election costs during the pandemic.
The commissioners are considering giving some of the federal funds to local governments to help them cover their higher costs. Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on how to structure those outlays Wednesday and will address them later.
David A. Adams
Doris Ann Ryan
Pauline Lorraine Zweifel
The two-month COVID-19 shutdown not only left movie theaters temporarily closed, it also forced movie producers and distributors to delay film releases until later this year or even next year.
So when Wildwood Movies 16 reopens in June, it will have to show films that already have run—a blend of silver-screen classics and fan favorites.
What will moviegoers pay to rewatch blockbusters such as “Gone With the Wind” or “Ghostbusters”?
Likely only $1, said Movies 16 Manager Sarah Lehr—the price of a sanitized seat at least 6 feet away from everyone else in the audience.
“We might even let everybody in for free at first,” Lehr said. “We think a lot of people want to try to get back to doing something normal or to escape a little from what hasn’t been normal. A free movie is an incentive to get our customers back.”
As local businesses got the go-ahead from Rock County to reopen this week, many are gearing up to operate in a new era.
Few can predict what kind of bounce-back in customer traffic they will see in coming days. But some business operators who were interviewed Wednesday say they plan to set crowd limits or at least adhere to sanitation and social distancing guidelines recommended in the county’s reopening plan.
Simple Scissors Salon in downtown Janesville isn’t ready to reopen just yet, but a few salon chairs were occupied Wednesday as stylists practiced on each other’s hair.
They wore protective gloves and masks as they worked.
“The reopening came as a surprise this week. It was sooner than we thought it would come,” owner Rachel Teubert said. “Our stylists hadn’t had their hair done in 10 weeks, so they’re getting that done now. It’s practice. Everybody has got to get used to doing their work with PPE, masks and gloves.
“The next day or so, we’ll have family members come in, and it’ll be more practice.”
The salon’s hair-washing basins are separated by plexiglass barriers like those seen in retail stores. A few new staffers—Teubert called them a “health and wellness team”—practiced sanitizing surfaces and work stations.
“They’ve been trained to do temperature checks and ask questions when the clients come in to make sure that people don’t have symptoms or haven’t been exposed to COVID-19,” Teubert said. “As we come in as a team, we’ll be asked the same questions and go through the same process in the morning.”
Those are internal policies Teubert believes will protect people and help clients and staff feel more comfortable.
None of the county’s reopening rules are hard mandates; they're not enforceable by county officials or police authorities, county officials said. For instance, the county has recommend—but does not require—that salons initially limit their customers to one at a time.
Teubert said her salon has opted to adopt many of the county's reopening recommendations. For instance, the salon initially will ask clients to wait in their cars until the salon sends a text message alert that their stylist is ready to see them. The salon also will require clients to wear masks.
“There’s basically just a waiver that we’re asking the clients to sign,” she said. “It says that they agree wear a face mask while they’re in the salon and they know everything that’s expected.”
At the White Oak tavern on North Parker Drive, a crew spread mulch on the flower beds outside while staff cleaned the bar and got the place ready to open.
The White Oak has a cast of regulars that owner John Briggs hasn’t seen in weeks.
Briggs’ daughter, Mary Story, said the tavern ordered beer this week for the first time since the COVID-19 shutdown in mid-March. The White Oak has a Friday fish fry and other dinner specials, but it did not offer curbside carryout during the shutdown.
Story is in wait-and-see mode after the surprise lifting of the county’s safer-at-home order this week. She said the tavern might hold off on opening because it is still trying call back its bartenders. If it does open, it might wait on the Friday fish fry or just offer it for carryout.
And she said the bar might spread out its tables to keep people distant.
Much depends on how soon the clientele return.
“We don’t know what to expect yet,” Story said. “The beer delivery guy yesterday said, ‘You know, Whitewater already has been up and running over in the next county, and the bars there have been busy.’ He thinks people from Rock County have been heading over that way to the bars while they wait for things here to finally open up. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in a few days.”
Meanwhile, the Janesville Mall plans to reopen Tuesday, according to a post on the mall’s Facebook page. The announcement promised more certainty in coming days, but the mall concourse will be open limited hours seven days a week.
“Retailers within the mall will individually decide when to open,” mall management wrote in the post.
At Movies 16, Lehr said management hasn’t decided whether it will impose the county’s recommended crowd limit of 25% occupancy. She said the theater plans to use chair markers to require moviegoers to choose seats at least 6 feet apart. The self-serve parts of the concessions area will remain closed for now, including popcorn refills.
“Like a lot of things people are going to experience going forward, going to the movies will feel a little different for a while,” Lehr said.
While waiting out the shutdown and uncertainty over which films distributors might offer, the theater’s owners spent time on renovations and upgrades, including installing a new cocktail lounge.
Lehr said barring any temporary health orders between now and June 14, when the theater is tentatively slated to reopen, Movies 16 plans to use its new cocktail lounge to pair classic films with cocktail specials.
“Think a White Russian cocktail night to go with the film ‘The Big Lebowski’ playing or a martini night with a James Bond film,” Lehr said. “We think that’ll be fun.”