by CHRIS ROGERS
Local businesses on both sides of the Mississippi River reopened this week under very different circumstances. Community transmission of COVID-19 continued slowly in Winona County, and Trempealeau County reported an inmate at its jail has tested positive for the virus.
Buffalo, Trempealeau counties respond to court ruling
Buffalo and Trempealeau counties rushed to issue local recommendations for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 after Wisconsin’s shelter-in-place order was abruptly eliminated last week. Last Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state’s “Safer at Home” order, immediately lifting restrictions on businesses that had been forced to close. County officials urged citizens to continue social distancing even as some local businesses opened their doors.
In Fountain City, Bluff Siding, Centerville, and Arcadia, some restaurants and bars opened, while others remained closed. “We are open for dining in! Let’s celebrate,” one Centerville restaurant posted on Facebook. A Buffalo County restaurant posted it would remain closed to protect customers’ and workers’ safety. Another restaurant in Fountain City wrote, “Opening our upper deck for dining this evening, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Social distancing will mean limited tables and four per table only.” They added, “We’ll see how this works tonight …”
Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ administration’s “Safer at Home” order shuttered non-essential businesses through May 26 and required Wisconsinites to stay at home, except to run essential errands or work in essential industries. The Republican-led legislature challenged the order as an overreach by the executive branch, and the Supreme Court ruled Evers’ administration must seek legislative approval for any new rules. In the meantime, the court’s decision brings some relief to struggling businesses and workers, but leaves Wisconsin without statewide regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19. Many local governments across Wisconsin issued their own recommendations or rules in response.
For now, Buffalo and Trempealeau counties have responded with recommendations, not hard-and-fast rules. “We’ll watch closely the situation to see if there’s any interventions we need to do to address it,” Buffalo County Public Health Officer April Loeffler said.
“Regrettably, the state of Wisconsin and Buffalo County are not ready to go back to ‘business as usual,’” Loeffler wrote in a press release urging citizens to minimize physical contact with others. “A complete return to pre-COVID function will result in a dramatic rise in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths … To prevent this, we must work together to respond in a united, informed way that balances livelihood with saving lives.”
“Trempealeau County is not ready to return to normal, pre-COVID function,” Trempealeau County Public Health Officer Barb Barczak echoed in a press release last week. “This will result in an increase in positive cases in our county, overwhelming our public health, emergency responder, and health care systems.” Barczak called out the county’s recent uptick in COVID-19 cases — despite the stay-at-home order — as concerning.
When people are close together, the potentially deadly coronavirus spreads through air people breathe; it also spreads through contaminated surfaces. People can be contagious without showing any symptoms.
“We are a small county with limited resources, relying heavily on volunteer and on-call emergency medical responders,” Barczak wrote. “These are our families, friends, and neighbors. Please protect them and the people they come home to by following all of these sensible guidelines: Stay home if you are sick, avoid gathering with more than 10 people who do not live in your household, observe physical distancing of six feet between yourself and others, wear a mask or face covering in all public settings, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, cover coughs and sneezes with your elbow, [and] avoid touching your face.”
The Buffalo County Health Department asked citizens to “stay at home if you are sick, minimize close physical contact with those outside of your household, minimize travel and keep in mind COVID-19 activity varies by location, wear a fabric face covering if you must be in public, maintain six-foot distances with others whenever possible, minimize congregating in groups of any size, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, [and] avoid touching your face.”
Both counties encouraged businesses to follow guidance from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation on how to operate safely and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those guidelines are available at wedc.org/reopen-guidelines.
A rapid expansion of social interaction — and COVID-19 transmission — in Wisconsin could impact Minnesota, especially border communities, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said last week.
Minnesota partially lifts stay-at-home order
Starting on Monday, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz partially lifted the state’s stay-at-home order to allow small gatherings with physical distancing and allow retail stores to operate at 50-percent occupancy with physical distancing and virus safety plans. Walz dubbed the new, somewhat relaxed order “Stay Safe MN.” The new rules extend through June 12 for now. Walz said his cabinet would draft similar rules to allow bars, restaurants, and salons to reopen on June 1.
According to new projections released by state health experts on Tuesday, the stay-at-home order and other restrictions have and will save tens of thousands of lives. A University of Minnesota and MDH model predicted over 57,000 Minnesotans would die over the course of the pandemic if the state had done nothing to slow down the spread of the virus with stay-at-home orders. It projected 29,000 deaths if the stay-at-home order was lifted on May 18, and 28,231 deaths if the stay-at-home order was extended through the end of May. Stay-at-home orders helped buy time to get more hospital beds and ventilators, but a surge of COVID-19 infections may still overwhelm Minnesota’s intensive care unit capacity this summer, according to the model.
“Minnesotans, thank you for your continued sacrifices,” Walz said. “You have saved thousands of lives. You successfully pushed out the peak of this virus and bought our state time to get ready to treat those who fall ill. We know there’s no stopping the storm of COVID-19 from hitting Minnesota, but we have made great progress to prepare for it.
“This is not the time for sudden movements,” Walz continued. “We are not flipping a switch and going back to normal all at once. We are slowly moving a dial and introducing more interaction between people over time. As we take cautious steps forward, it is more important than ever that we protect those most at risk, support workers, and all do our part to slow the spread of the virus.”
If the virus’ spread in Minnesota worsens significantly — as state health experts expect it will — Walz said rises in the new infections and other benchmarks could trigger renewed stay-at-home orders or other restrictions. Some national public health experts say responding to the pandemic requires what they call “the hammer and the dance” — a cycle of shutdowns being slowly lifted, then reimposed when the virus flares out of control, then slowly lifted again.
“Minnesota is still in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will be dealing with its impacts for many months,” Malcolm said.
Under the new rules, “Minnesotans are still asked to stay close to home and limit travel to what is essential. But the order allows gatherings with friends and family in groups of 10 or less with social distancing,” the governor’s staff explained in a press release. People over 65 and with underlying health conditions should continue staying at home, the governor said.
To reopen, retail stores and other businesses may operate at no more than 50 percent of their building’s occupancy and must complete and implement a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. More information on what those plans require is available at mn.gov/deed/safework.
Another newly signed executive order from Walz attempts to ensure workers’ safety. It bars employers for retaliating against workers for asking questions or raising concerns about pandemic-related safety. It bars employers from firing or punishing workers for wearing masks or other safety equipment. It reinforces workers’ rights to refuse to work in unsafe conditions and prohibits employers for firing them if they refuse. If workers are fired after giving their bosses a chance to fix safety problems, they will remain eligible for unemployment benefits, under the order. The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry directed workers to report unaddressed health and safety concerns by contacting osha.compliance@state. mn.us, 651-284-5050, or 877-470-6742
Cases grow in Trempealeau County
Trempealeau County announced on Saturday that an inmate in the Trempealeau County Jail has tested positive for COVID-19. In other states, the close quarters in jails and prisons have led to widespread outbreaks. County health officials said they were working with the Sheriff’s Office to trace and contain the virus, and Sheriff Brett Semingson said, “Per protocol, jail staff were all wearing recommended PPE when in contact with the infected inmate from the moment that person was booked into the jail. Further, everyone who is arrested and brought into our jail is isolated from the general population for 14 days, regardless of whether or not they are symptomatic or test positive.”
Meanwhile, the number of lab-confirmed infections in Trempealeau County increased over the last week, rising from six cases as of last Wednesday to 11 cases as of press time on Tuesday. Neighboring La Crosse County also reported 13 new cases over the past week, while Buffalo County’s total remained stable.
The growth of confirmed infections in Winona County remained slow, but steady. There were four new cases and zero new deaths in the last week — a total of 75 infections and 15 deaths. While an outbreak at a Winona nursing home that fueled more rapid increases in infections earlier this spring has been contained, these new cases are from community transmission, meaning the virus is still out there and spreading in the area, Winona County Health and Human Services Director Karen Sanness reported.
Health officials urged citizens to continue staying six feet apart from others, wearing a face mask in public, washing their hands thoroughly and frequently, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, covering their coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching their faces, and staying home when sick. They also urged people with any symptom of COVID-19 to seek testing. Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath or difficult breathing, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell.
In Winona, COVID-19 diagnostic tests are available at Winona Health’s urgent care clinic at 855 Mankato Avenue and at the Gundersen Health System Winona Campus at 1122 West Highway 61. Walk-ins are accepted at both locations.
Trempealeau County officials organized a walk-up testing clinic today, Wednesday, May 20, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Arcadia High School, 756 Raider Drive, in Arcadia. All symptomatic people over five years of age may be tested.