The Rock County Public Health Department has moved the county to phase two of its COVID-19 reopening guidelines.
In a news release Wednesday, health department officials said local COVID-19 data show the county has met enough public health benchmarks to move forward from phase one, which was initiated in mid-May.
Among the highlights of phase two are looser limits on crowd size and business occupancy. The county now recommends 50% capacity with continued social distancing at public events and in retail businesses, commercial offices and churches.
Previously, county officials had recommended no more than 25% capacity crowds in most public places.
Under phase two, the county also recommends limiting playgrounds and private gatherings, such as indoor or outdoor weddings, to no more than 25 people. That’s more relaxed than the previously recommended limit of 10 people, but it’s only half of the 50-person cap the county had said it would recommend for phase two.
It’s one of two amendments county officials said they made to phase two reopening guidelines. The other amendment is for senior care facilities. The health department recommends that nursing homes continue to prohibit outside visits and limit other visits to “essential services,” which is the same guidance offered in phase one.
In its news release, the county said the amendments were “based on information about the (COVID-19) virus; consideration for the most vulnerable groups within the community; capacity of our health care systems; and guidance from our regional, state and national partners.”
In notes on the phase two guidelines, health department officials wrote that continued restrictions for nursing homes were based on “continued new cases and relatively high rates in associated high-risk facilities and vulnerable populations.”
Health department spokeswoman Kelsey Cordova said recent data show the county has met more than half of six benchmarks it had not met in May, when phase one was implemented. The improvement meets the county’s criteria to move from phase one to phase two, she said.
Overall, the data show Rock County has met nine of 11 benchmarks, officials said. The county fell short on two benchmarks: quick contact tracing and capacity for isolating people when appropriate.
The county’s goal is to reach 75% of a COVID-19 case’s contacts within 48 hours. Over the last 14 days, the county on average successfully contacted 63% of contacts within 48 hours.
The health department said the 63% score shows the county remains “on track” to meet contact-tracing benchmarks.
“We’re not moving backwards” on contact tracing, Cordova said. “We’re trying to ramp up and build our capacity to increase that number and hopefully get closer to and reach that 75% target.”
The county also missed the mark on its capacity to isolate people who, for various reasons, might not be able to self-isolate. That’s in part because the county is continuing to ready the Craig Center at the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds as a potential quarantine facility, Cordova said.
Health department data show that the county has improved on several COVID-19 benchmarks, including:
Those are benchmarks the county did not meet in mid-May, when it entered phase one.
Like phase one recommendations, the new recommendations are advisory, county officials said. However, officials have said the county could resort to partial lockdowns or reverse course on reopening if COVID-19 infections spike later.
The health department advises people to continue social distancing, hand washing and other personal protective guidelines as restrictions on crowd sizes ease.
“The most important factors to prevent the spread of the virus during phase two are physical distancing and protective measures,” the health department wrote.
Confronted with an economy gripped by recession and high unemployment, the Federal Reserve signaled Wednesday that it expects to keep its key short-term interest rate near zero through 2022.
At the same time, the Fed said it will keep buying about $120 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds each month to maintain low longer-term borrowing rates in an effort to spur spending and growth.
The Fed’s message Wednesday, in a statement after its latest policy meeting and in a virtual news conference by Chair Jerome Powell, was that it is ready to do more to help support a shaky economy that faces significant uncertainty. Powell acknowledged that he and other Fed policymakers have only a hazy view of how the economy will fare in the coming months, largely because no one knows how quickly businesses might regain their health or resume a normal pace of hiring.
By pegging its short-term rate to zero for the next two-plus years, the Fed is seeking to induce consumers and businesses to spend more to sustain an economy depressed by the coronavirus. Its benchmark rate influences a range of loans, including for homes, autos and credit cards.
“It is clear that the Fed does not anticipate a V-shaped economic recovery and is positioned to move forcefully to support the economy,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM, referring to an economy that snaps back as quickly as it shrank.
Stock prices initially rallied modestly after the Fed issued its latest policy statement Wednesday afternoon before most indexes closed in negative territory.
Powell noted the job market “may have hit bottom” last month, when employers added a surprise 2.5 million jobs, according to a government report last Friday. But he underscored that nearly 21 million Americans remain unemployed and that one solid jobs report was hardly enough to ensure that the economy is back on track—or alter the Fed’s intention to keep rates ultra low.
“We’re not going to overreact to a single data point,” he said. “We’re not thinking about raising rates. We’re not even thinking about thinking about raising rates.”
In the statement, the Fed also credited its emergency lending programs for reviving the flow of credit to households and businesses after markets had locked up in March when investors sold a range of securities to boost their cash holdings.
The central bank noted that the viral outbreak has caused a plunge in economic activity and a surge in job losses. Fed officials estimate that the economy will shrink 6.5% this year, in line with other forecasts, before expanding 5% in 2021. They foresee the unemployment rate at 9.3%, near the peak of the last recession, by year’s end. The rate is now 13.3%.
The projections suggest that the Fed doesn’t see the economy fully recovering from the recession until 2023.
“My assumption is that there will be a significant chunk—well into the millions—of people who don’t get back to their old jobs,” Powell said. “It could be some years” before they find work.
Earlier Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he thought the economy would need more aid to emerge from the recession but said the next round of congressional support should be targeted to the hardest-hit areas of the economy.
Testifying to the Senate Small Business Committee, Mnuchin said the administration planned to review the measures that the next relief bill should include. Congress has already approved nearly $3 trillion to help counter the damage from the pandemic. New support will need to encourage employers, especially in such industries as restaurants and travel, to rehire workers.
At his news conference, Powell began by acknowledging the widespread protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing that have called attention to racial injustices.
“I want to acknowledge the tragic events that have put a spotlight on (issues of racism),” Powell said. “There is no place at the Federal Reserve for racism, and there should be no place in our society.”
Since March, the Fed has slashed its benchmark short-term rate, bought $2.1 trillion in Treasury and mortgage bonds to inject cash into markets, and rolled out nine lending programs to try to keep credit flowing smoothly.
Powell said Fed policymakers now want to take some time “to get a better understanding of the economy’s trajectory” and how they might do more to bolster the economy.
One possible move, he said, would be to provide more specific guidance about how long the Fed will keep short-term rates low. This guidance could help the economy by reducing the likelihood that investors will send borrowing costs higher before the Fed intends.
The policymakers could, for example, announce at a future meeting that they will put off any rate hike until inflation returns to its 2% target.
Another option the Fed discussed, Powell said, is to peg more rates at nearly zero, such as those on two-year or three-year Treasury notes, to underscore their determination to keep rates very low for that length of time. Australia’s central bank has adopted such a policy.
But Powell said it is still an “open question” as to whether the Fed would take that approach.
The chairman pushed back at a question about whether the economy could sink into something resembling the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“I don’t think the Great Depression is a good example or a likely outcome or a model for what’s happening here,” he said. “First, the government response has been so fast and so forceful. The origin was quite different. This was an economy that was in a healthy place. The financial system this time was in very good shape, much better capitalized.”
Over the past few weeks, the Fed’s actions are credited with having helped fuel an extraordinary rally in the stock market, which has nearly regained its pre-pandemic high after a dizzying plunge in March. By committing to buy corporate bonds, for example, the central bank has ensured that corporations can continue to borrow. Its initiatives also include a first-ever program through which the Fed is buying state and local government debt to support the municipal bond market.
Many economists say those steps have prevented the downturn from worsening by keeping credit flowing. This week, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of recessions, declared that the U.S. economy entered a recession in February.
The discussion over where to allow overnight parking for people experiencing homelessness has focused on two new locations.
Janesville City Council members Wednesday floated the idea of moving the overnight parking lot from the Jackson Street municipal lot to the parking areas at Dawson Ball Fields or Lions Beach.
Council members Paul Benson, Paul Williams and Tom Wolfe met over video call Wednesday with members from the city’s FOCUS group, which works to identify gaps in services for people experiencing homelessness.
The meeting has been expected since late March, when the council extended the overnight parking lot ordinance to Sept. 30 at the Jackson Street municipal lot to allow more time to decide on a location.
Council members and residents have said the Jackson Street lot is not ideal because it is visible from busy Jackson Street and Centerway. It also does not have a bathroom with running water and is near the police headquarters, which makes some potential users uncomfortable.
Use of the Jackson Street lot was low in the early winter months but has increased since spring, according to data shared Wednesday.
The Janesville City Council on Tuesday extended its overnight parking ordinance to allow more time for the council to come to a permanent solution.
The average number of vehicles per night in the Jackson Street lot has increased from 0.48 in late winter to 1.16, City Manager Mark Freitag said.
Fourteen unique vehicles used the lot between Feb. 16 and May 1, Freitag said.
The maximum number of cars seen on a night was four, he said.
Janesville police Sgt. Ben Thompson said no overnight parking-related incidents have occurred at the lot.
Low usage in January and February likely was connected to cold weather. More people also are willing to house homeless people during winter months, Freitag said.
The Jackson Street lot still is used less than the Traxler Park lot, which averaged 3.73 cars per night last year.
Jessica Locher, associate director of local charity ECHO, said proximity to the police department is a deterrent for people experiencing homelessness.
About 65% to 70% of recent clients who are or soon might be sleeping in their cars told ECHO workers they do not feel comfortable parking near the police department, she said.
Officials in other meetings have acknowledged people are sleeping in cars in other areas of the city.
As recently as Tuesday, police have received complaints from downtown business owners that people are sleeping in the Parker Drive parking garage during the day, Thompson said.
Wolfe thinks the lot at Dawson fields, just south of downtown, meets many of the requirements city officials have. It is located on a lesser-traveled part of Beloit Avenue and has bathroom facilities and electrical outlets for people to charge devices.
Wolfe said he supports the overnight parking program, but he would prefer to choose a lot that is not near a residential neighborhood like the Dawson parking lot is.
Freitag said Dawson Field could be considered, but there are concerns about late-night softball games impinging on overnight parking hours and bathrooms that cannot be used during winter.
Benson said he has played softball at Dawson fields for years and efforts have been made to end games by 9:30 p.m.
Overnight parking hours begin at 10 p.m.
Benson suggested moving the overnight parking lot to the area outside Lions Beach.
Most of Lions Beach parking is on-street parking along Palmer Drive, but a small, city-owned lot is nearby at the pump station, said Maggie Darr, assistant to the city manager.
Lions Beach also offers bathroom facilities. And although it has street parking, Palmer Drive is not busy at night, Benson said.
Freitag said the city could explore that option further, including fielding potential concerns from the adjacent Rotary Gardens.
The city council has until Sept. 30 to decide on a new location or keep the existing location.
A community engagement forum to hear residents’ ideas and concerns will be scheduled in July unless restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic prevent such a forum, Freitag said.
Thomas W. Cornelius
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