On the south side of town, Friendly Tap was serving customers, and the bartender was already calculating whether she would be meeting Gov. Tony Evers’ new COVID-19 crowd limit rules set to take effect Thursday.
On one hand, bartender Nicole White said, it would be unusual at noon for the neighborhood bar on Rockport Road to reach the upper limit of Evers’ 25% crowd capacity for most indoor public places.
But in the evenings or at special events like a recent raffle drawing, the bar might draw enough people to rub up against the state’s new limit.
The Friendly Tap since May has viewed a 50% capacity recommendation from the Rock County Public Health Department as a rule of thumb for its own COVID-era occupancy limit. The bar would cap itself at 50 people based on its regular occupancy limit of 100 people—a cap the bar hasn’t reached recently, White said.
Under the governor’s order, which takes effect at 8 a.m. Thursday morning, White said she could see having to occasionally deny customers if more than a few dozen showed up at any given time.
Many of the Friendly Tap’s regulars are residents from the neighborhood. White worries about that—and the prospect of having to turn away or place new, stricter limits on customers she knows well.
“What am I going to say to people? ‘OK, let’s sit you down in front of a beer and a time clock. And you have an hour to drink, but after that, you’ve got to leave to make room for the next person.’ Because what we’re going to do is piss off customers. And you think they’re going to want to come back? Maybe not. We really don’t want to see that happen,” White said.
Evers’ new order appears not to apply to schools, business offices or indoor manufacturing spaces or other places typically only accessed by employees.
But as written, it would broadly apply to most consumer-based businesses such as retailers, bars and restaurants—places state health officials say where people might be at greater risk for transmission of COVID-19, particularly given the epidemic’s recent spike in new infections. The state has reported 1,415 COVID-19 deaths as of Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a statewide hospital trade group reported a record level of COVID hospitalizations recently, the latest troubling trend tied to a recent spike in cases. State testing labs and county health departments also are struggling to keep up with COVID testing and contact tracing.
Like Evers’ earlier COVID-19 orders—including his safer-at-home mandate that was overturned by the state Supreme Court earlier this year—enforcement of the new crowd size limits would be left up to local authorities.
Dan Cunningham, vice president and a lobbyist for local chamber of commerce Forward Janesville, was frustrated Wednesday, and he didn’t hide it.
Cunningham said while he and Forward Janesville understand that coronavirus cases have spiked statewide, the governor’s new mandate hits local businesses, including “some of our most vulnerable” mom-and-pop restaurants, as owners and staff continue to navigate the ongoing pandemic, shifting dining habits and the turning of the seasons from summer to fall.
Forward Janesville hasn’t issued an official stance on Evers’ new rule, but a state restaurant trade group has warned it thinks ongoing limits to crowd size or other restrictions might lead to as many as half of all restaurants closing.
Cunningham’s personal read—and the read of dozens of chamber members he said he talked to on Wednesday—is that the crimped crowd limits showed up as an unannounced hand grenade.
“You can’t really say this came out of nowhere because we’ve seen the (COVID-19) cases spike,” Cunningham said. “But I call these (COVID rule) announcements ‘gov-bombs.’ Because nobody knows they’re coming. When I get a note, an email, from the governor’s office and it says ‘Update,’ I say: ‘Oh, God, here’s another gov-bomb,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham doesn’t think Evers or the state’s Department of Health Services has consulted chambers of commerce prior to issuing new public health orders, and he said the state hasn’t forewarned or explained the orders in advance.
“We had 36 hours to figure this out. They’re not talking to anybody. They’re doing this in a vacuum. And then business owners are forced to interpret these orders. And most of the time, the orders are very vaguely worded. I mean, people are sitting there trying to figure out, ‘Am I exempt from this or not?’” Cunningham said.
Cunningham pointed out that wedding and other private event venues seem to be exempt from the latest order. Cunningham finds that curious given that Evers has expressed concern about large, private events having potential to spread the virus.
Short of the state’s main business lobby having a seat at the table, Cunningham thinks state and local business groups and the public at least deserve advanced notice along with clearer explanation of new public health rules.
The latest mandate has brought nearly the same volume of phone calls to Cunningham’s office as he saw in March and April, when Evers’ safer-at-home mandate shuttered many “non-essential” businesses temporarily.
Cunningham believes the state will eventually provide clarity, but that likely won’t come before the rule has already gone into effect.
He expects there to be confusion from business operators who will soon face decisions on crowd control. The stakes for making the wrong decisions on crowds could cost businesses a $500 civil fine, according to the order.
“Nobody wants to be that bad actor, the person who made assumptions, was wrong, and then gets in trouble. I know of nobody who wants that,” Cunningham said.
Maggie Darr, a city spokeswoman, said the Janesville Police Department will respond to complaints over crowd sizes, but she said the department’s first priority has been and will continue to be helping to “educate” businesses on state COVID-19 policy.
Darr said the city considers the Rock County District Attorney’s Office the criminal justice agency with ultimate authority to decide and approve citations for complaints against businesses.
White, the Friendly Tap bartender who said she wears masks in every business she goes into, believes most businesses won’t fight or flout the crowd size order, even if they don’t like it.
“People have got to cooperate. At the same time, I mean, people have got to work. I’ve got a child and bills. I have to work. I don’t want to see any businesses fail because of this.” White said. “But what other choice is there except to cooperate?”
State health officials announced Wednesday that a field hospital will open next week at the state fairgrounds in West Allis as a surge in COVID-19 cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals.
Wisconsin has become a hot spot for the disease over the last month, ranking third nationwide this week in new cases per capita over the last two weeks. Health experts have attributed the spike to the reopening of colleges and K-12 schools as well as general fatigue over wearing masks and socially distancing.
State Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm told reporters during a video conference the facility will open Oct. 14.
“We hoped this day wouldn’t come, but unfortunately, Wisconsin is in a much different, more dire place today and our healthcare systems are beginning to become overwhelmed by the surge of COVID-19 cases,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement. “This alternative care facility will take some of the pressure off our healthcare facilities while expanding the continuum of care for folks who have COVID-19.”
The move also came as a state judge was considering a lawsuit seeking to strike down Evers’ mandate that masks be worn in enclosed public spaces. The governor on Tuesday issued new restrictions on the size of indoor public gatherings through Nov. 6.
Only 16% of the state’s 11,452 hospital beds were available as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the DHS. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had grown to 853, the most during the pandemic, according to the COVID Tracking Project, with 216 in intensive care.
Results of COVID-19 tests on an additional 262 inpatients in Wisconsin were pending. The southeastern region of the state had 250 COVID-19 patients, the most of any of the state’s seven hospital regions.
Nationwide, about 30,000 coronavirus patients are hospitalized, the COVID Tracking Project reported.
The DHS reported 2,319 new confirmed cases Wednesday and 16 more deaths. The state has now seen 138,698 cases and 1,415 deaths since the pandemic began.
Virus spread is particularly rampant in northeastern Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers announced this week that no home fans would be admitted to home games until the situation improved, and head coach Matt LaFleur asked area residents to wear masks and practice social distancing.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a 530-bed field hospital on the state fairgrounds in West Allis just outside Milwaukee in April at the request of Evers’ administration. Local leaders had warned about the possibility of area hospitals being overwhelmed, but hospitalizations never reached the point where the hospital was needed until now.
The hospital will accept patients from across Wisconsin but is designed to provide low-level care, and it will accept only patients who have already been hospitalized elsewhere for at least 24 to 48 hours, according to the state Department of Administration. Patients who qualify will be transported to the facility by ambulance. The facility will not accept walk-ins. Palm said the facility will be ready to accept 50 patients on its first day.
“The goal of this facility is to transition COVID-19 patients who are less ill out of hospitals and reserve hospital beds for patients who are more ill and in need of hospital-level care,” Evers’ office said.
The hospital will be staffed by volunteers, state workers and National Guard members, DOA officials said. Patients will not be allowed to have visitors.
Several other states moved to set up field hospitals in the early stages of the pandemic—at great expense—only to find that they got little to no use, and many were shut down.
Voters will decide Nov. 3 whether a pair of referendum questions is the best way to address a steady decline in enrollment and aging facilities in the Janesville School District.
The school board in August decided to ask voters to approve both a $22.5 million capital referendum and a $37 million operational referendum.
District officials say the referendums’ failures, particularly failure of the operational referendum, could have serious consequences.
“We’ll administer the district one way or the other,” Superintendent Steven Pophal said.
“We just think that the district is eager to make sure that we prepare kids for their future and not our past,” he said. “And we know the world is changing fast and never faster than in the last six months with COVID, and we want to make sure that we continue the long, proud tradition of excellence in the district by positioning the district to keep its promises to the kids and community.”
The capital referendum would add secure entrances and safety procedures in schools, as well as replace old boilers.
If it is approved, property owners would pay $5 more per $100,000 of equalized property value every year until the debt is paid off, which would take about 20 years, according to an earlier estimate from Dan McCrea, the district’s chief financial officer.
“On the capital side, it will really create a standard of identity, if you will, for what getting into one of our buildings looks like and ensure that we really have a safe and secure entryway into our schools to keep students and staff out of harm’s way,” Pophal said.
Most of the district’s school buildings were constructed before the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and each has a different setup for safety and entry.
Replacing boilers is especially important, Pophal said, because some of the existing boilers are 50 to 60 years old, and most are designed to last for 20 to 30 years. District officials used surveys to figure out which problems the community wanted to fix, and Pophal believes the referendum takes those surveys into account.
“If we don’t have heat, we don’t have school, starting real soon here,” he said. “So really, out of $111 million of needed maintenance work, we’ve listened to our taxpayers, which was really what the survey said and really focused on the safety and security stuff.”
The $37 million operational referendum would address problems related to declining enrollment and the district receiving less state funding as a result. The money would help maintain programs and services and pay salaries and other costs associated with daily operations.
About 75% of public school districts in Wisconsin use operational referendums, Pophal said. Janesville schools can no longer cut less-important expenses to address the shortfall caused by decreasing enrollment and state aid, he said.
“We’re just at this moment in time, finally, where the way the state’s funding formula is set up has caught up with us—it’s caught up with our ability to maintain the current level of programming that we have,” Pophal said.
“And so without some additional revenue that we can only generate through an operational question on the ballot, the district is in this precarious spot where the programs and services that the community is used to, some of that starts to become at peril.”
Initial estimates for the operational referendum said school taxes would increase by $40 per $100,000 of equalized property value every year for four years. However, more recent estimates shared at an Aug. 25 school board meeting show those numbers will be lower thanks to tertiary aid.
Instead, property owners would see increases of $39 per $100,000 of equalized property value in year one, $31 in year two, $29 in year three and $28 in year four. The referendum would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $127 over the life of the referendum, which is $33 less than initial estimates shared in a previous district survey, McCrea said.
Some taxpayers have expressed concern that the district’s estimates were so high, but officials wanted to ensure the final numbers wouldn’t be higher than original estimates, McCrea said.
Because the numbers change each year, it would have been hard to explain that clearly in the survey, he said.
“I think really the intent of the survey was to test tax tolerance. ...It’s kind of saying, ‘OK, what’s our ceiling? Would people support, essentially, the top or that ceiling level?’ And if the answer to that, which is what was indicated, is ‘yes,’ now we know that’s the ceiling. So don’t go above the ceiling,” McCrea said.
The failure of the operational referendum Nov. 3 could change how education looks in Janesville, Pophal said.
About 75.8% of the district’s budget covers payroll and staffing, so layoffs and larger class sizes likely would follow a failed referendum. Expenses have risen about 1.3% each year since 2013-14, and the district has made changes and cuts to other areas, McCrea said.
“The (district’s) back is up against the wall, and reductions with a failed referendum will severely impact the quality of instruction that our district residents are accustomed to having their children and their community receive,” McCrea said.
Patricia L. (Amour) Embling
Debbie J. Jacobus
Albert H. Kath III
Edwin Levi Kjendlie
Charles LeRoy “Catfish” Millard
David Howard Nyhus