Milwaukee County will soon be a patchwork of rules as suburbs allow all businesses to open later this week, while the City of Milwaukee sticks with its stay-at-home order, requiring certain businesses to stay shuttered.
The most noticeable difference will likely be in bars and restaurants. They are free to open for sit-down service in the suburbs Friday, but cannot in Milwaukee.
Suburban businesses will be able to reopen with guidelines on how to do so safely including social distancing, cleaning and other protections, said Ann Christiansen, director of the North Shore Health Department. She said the focus remains on a “phased” reopening to avoid overwhelming the health care system.
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Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus.
Shortly after that, the 18 suburban municipalities in Milwaukee County, followed by the City of Milwaukee, issued new local orders. The suburban orders expire late Thursday. Milwaukee’s order does not have an end date.
South Milwaukee Mayor Erik Brooks called on everyone to act responsibly knowing that the highly contagious virus is still present. Brooks hopes Friday marks the beginning of a return to normal, adding: “I’m certain we’ll open responsibly.”
Meanwhile, Milwaukee officials are evaluating the city’s next steps and remain “very concerned,” Mayor Tom Barrett said. The city will soon be announcing criteria for reopening, which could be based on such things as positive tests and hospital capacity and usage, he said.
“We are not ready at this stage to simply say everything is back to normal for the simple reason that everything is not back to normal,” he said.
Ben Weston, medical services director for Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management, said Wednesday that local hospitals have seen more COVID-19 patients in recent days.
A week ago, there were 146 patients; there were 189 Wednesday. It would be too soon to attribute that increase to businesses opening under the Supreme Court decision, given the incubation period of COVID-19.
But Weston said he is concerned about what will happen in the days ahead.
“COVID-19 has been constrained in its spread by stay-at-home orders, closed storefronts and canceled gatherings,” he said in a media briefing. “We’ve slowed the flow of this river with a dam that we’re now dismantling, and there’s no reason to think that we’re not going to get wet.
“Reopen businesses with humility, travel but with caution and pull back physical distancing with care and understanding that we’re now facing probably the most dangerous period in our fight against COVID-19.”
More tests given, high number of positives reported
Some 528 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Wednesday, a new daily high, while the state also reported giving the most tests in a day. The two numbers are linked: More tests given typically result in more positive cases.
The more closely watched statistic is the percent of tests given that came back positive. On Wednesday, that was 8%, about two points above the state’s seven-day average.
As of Wednesday, 481 people throughout the state had died. Fourteen deaths were reported Wednesday.
Also, Wednesday the state’s last two counties without a confirmed coronavirus case, Taylor and Langlade, declared their first cases. All 72 Wisconsin counties have now had at least one confirmed case.
Nearly 60% of patients, or 7,728 of the 13,413 total positive cases in the state, have now recovered, according to the state. Recovery is defined by a person whose symptoms have resolved, has been released from isolation and has survived 30 days since the onset of their symptoms. Just over 5,200 cases are still defined as “active” cases.
To date, close to 170,000 Wisconsinites have been tested for the virus. There are 53 labs across the state able to perform a total of more than 14,000 tests per day.
Statewide, 393 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19. That number represented a slight drop statewide, despite the increased hospitalizations reported in Milwaukee. Nearly 130 patients are in an intensive care unit, the state said. Just over 180 inpatients had pending coronavirus tests.
The state continues to report that about 16% of people sickened with COVID-19 have required hospitalization at some point during their illness, a number that has ticked downward in recent weeks.
Farm funds announced by Evers
Evers announced Wednesday the state will provide $50 million to farmers using federal COVID-19 funds.
Eligible farmers will be asked to apply for the aid through the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. Farm support payments could begin arriving as early as June.
“Farmers have asked for help, and this direct aid is meant to aid the farmers who are the foundation of our food system,” Evers said in a news release.
Evers also committed $15 million to the Food Security Initiative to help food banks, pantries and other nonprofit organizations during the pandemic.
The federal CARES Act, approved by Congress and President Donald Trump, gives Evers sole discretion on how to spend more than $1 billion in aid.
Meanwhile, the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation awarded $100,000 to Milwaukee organizations SaintA and Nia Imani Family Inc., as part of a COVID-19 relief effort.
The foundation donated a total of $12 million to Winfrey’s “home cities” of Milwaukee, Nashville, Chicago, Baltimore and Kosciusko in Mississippi.
“I’m proud to be able to support the communities I have called home,” Winfrey said in a news release. “These organizations are working tirelessly on the ground to help those hit the hardest by the pandemic, meeting people where they are and serving in ways needed most.”
Election commission considers more mail-in ballots
Wisconsin election officials are considering mailing absentee ballot request forms to 2.7 million voters this fall because of sky-high interest in mail voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
The bipartisan state Elections Commission late Wednesday was considering mailing the request forms as part of a $5.3 million plan that would also help local governments cover their election costs, make absentee ballot instructions more user friendly and ensure polling sites are stocked with hand sanitizer.
The commission was weighing the proposals after voters and clerks faced numerous challenges in running the April 7 election, which included a presidential primary and an election for state Supreme Court. Election officials struggled to fulfill an unprecedented number of requests for absentee ballots and keep in-person voting safe.
Madeline Heim and Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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