Stephanie Kuski/River News
The Friendship House in Rhinelander saw few patrons during the lunch rush Tuesday afternoon. Bars and restaurants across the state have since been forced to close (other than for to-go or delivery services), following a state mandate by Gov. Tony Evers late Tuesday afternoon.
3/19/2020 7:30:00 AM Local businesses grapple with impact of coronavirus restrictions Bars and restaurants can offer takeout or delivery only until further notice
Stephanie Kuski River News Features Reporter
Earlier this week, Gov. Tony Evers banned gatherings of 50 people or more, requiring bars and restaurants to limit their patrons as coronavirus fears spread across the state. Less than 24 hours later, on Tuesday, Evers issued another order prohibiting mass gatherings of 10 or more people to slow the spread of COVID-19.
This order excludes essential services, including: transportation, educational institutions, child care, hotels, military, law enforcement, food pantries, hospitals, long-term care facilities, grocery and convenience stores, utility facilities, job center and courts.
Bars and restaurants can only offer take-out or delivery, according to Evers' statement, and were effectively forced to shut down as of 5 p.m. Tuesday.
"We are seeing community spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin," Evers stated in a press release. "This means that there are people who have tested positive who have no exposures to a known case nor did they travel to a location where this is known community spread."
"Today, we have cases in Milwaukee, Dane and Kenosha counties indicating that there is community spread happening in Wisconsin," Evers continued. "Social distancing will keep you, your family and our community from increased risk of exposure."
"Our top priority at this time is to keep Wisconsinites safe and healthy by reducing the spread of COVID-19, especially for those who are considered high-risk," Evers noted. "I know what this means for our small business owners and the struggles they and their workers will face in the coming weeks, but we are committed to working [...] to ensure we are doing everything we can to assist during these uncertain times."
While health officials at the local, state and national level work diligently to update information as it becomes available, local businesses have been forced to implement new policy restrictions and limitations on short notice.
Linda Conlon, director for the Oneida County Health Department and health officer for Oneida County, said she and her staff have been working tirelessly with local organizations to keep them updated on the ever-changing information.
She said it's important organizations stay abreast of new information, noting that businesses like hotels couldn't serve their normal continental breakfast Tuesday morning under the new order that food must be individually packaged.
While there are many new restrictions which affect each business differently, Conlon said her number one tip for combating the spread of this disease is to implement social distancing.
"The one simple rule or advice is, let's stop our nonessential going out in public, and let's do some social distancing," Conlon said. "It's OK to go to the grocery store, but if you just have a check-up at the doctor's office, maybe you should postpone that."
"If you're going to go out, you should make sure there is some distance between you and the other patrons," she continued.
Conlon recognized that social distancing does indeed affect local businesses who rely on a consistent stream of customers.
"We're telling people to stay home, and so business may be declining," Conlon said. "We realize there are some issues not only for the owners, but for the employees that depend on that income. I'm hoping there are some funds from the federal government we can have in place to assist individuals."
Family-owned bars and restaurants have been hit hard by Evers' newest mandate. On Tuesday morning, Friendship House Owner Tony Sabani was still working under the assumption that he needed to keep patrons at 50% capacity, but those hopes were squashed after Evers issued the order requiring all restaurants in Wisconsin to close their doors.
"It's been affecting me for now, especially today," Sabani said. "It's affecting business, which is going down. People are afraid of going out and are staying in. My clientele is older, so mostly they stay home."
On Tuesday morning, Sabani made sure his restaurant had ample amounts of hand sanitizer available for customers and employees, and even went so far as to seat guests at every other table to ensure the six-foot separation initially mandated on Monday. But by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sabani had to close shop for the foreseeable future.
"Our business depends on the customers," he said. "It's been affecting me a lot. We're a little bit confused in how we're being impacted, and we don't know what to do. It's just up in the air because we don't know what's going to happen."
Amy Laxton, owner of Crimson Cafe, said her business is also being affected by the new rules.
"We're seeing a decline in patrons coming into the store, although we've decided to deliver for people," Laxton said.
That delivery service is offered Tuesday-Thursday.
In addition, Laxton said she is taking extra steps to ensure cleanliness and safety for all customers. She said patrons are asked not to bring in their reusable mugs, and employees are taking extra care to sanitize the counter, credit card machines and even pens.
"We are always clean here, but we're taking extra precautions," she said. "We're just being more cognizant of the little things."
"We're staying positive," Laxton continued. "Everybody will get through this, we just all have to stick together as a community and do the right thing for our patrons."
While restaurants and bars have been hit particularly hard by the statewide mandate, small businesses and organizations across the community are suffering.
Banks, libraries and non-profits are considering the essentiality of their services as well as the health and protection of their clients.
President/CEO of CoVantage Credit Union Charlie Zanayed said the bank chose to follow in the footsteps of a number of financial institutions in Rhinelander who decided to close their lobbies prior to the government mandate.
"We did get guidance from a number of government and health officials before we did make that decision," Zanayed said. "It's really just to do everything we can for the well-being of our families and neighbors, our members and employees."
While lobby services are temporarily suspended, Zanayed said digital services are available 24/7/365.
"We're still serving members who want to do transactions with tellers through our drive-throughs," Zanayed said.
"We will not be reducing any employee hours or making any kind of negative changes for employees," he continued. "In fact, we are closely monitoring the situation and want to make sure any employees who may be impacted, that we can assist in any way we can. We're not reducing hours, reducing staff or anything like that."
At a time in which many organizations are hurting, it's also a reminder to help our neighbors in their time of need, he noted.
"CoVantage has a long history of supporting the communities we serve," Zanayed said. "If there are any folks in the community who are doing something positive to try and help those who are impacted and need assistance, let us know. We have a foundation that helps support the communities we serve."
For the time being, Zanayed said lobby services will remain closed and they will continue to monitor the news while taking advice from experts.
The same is true at Ripco Credit Union, which has also moved to drive-thru only service.
In light of concerns over the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and as a proactive measure to protect the health and well-being of Ripco members and staff, the Board of Directors and President/CEO of Ripco Credit Union have suspended lobby service at both the Rhinelander and Eagle River branches, the credit union announced in a press release.
Normal business hours will be maintained for drive-through service and telephone support.
Additionally, full service ATMs are located at both branches.
Telephone, online and text banking services as well as remote check deposit provide safe alternatives to face-to-face banking.
Members will continue to have access to their funds, and Ripco Credit Union staff will remain available to assist and answer questions over the phone or via email. Additional information is available online at ripco.org.
While banks are considered nonessential services, other essential organizations like hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores and long-term senior residences must stay intact in order for the community to function.
A manager at a local convenience store who declined to be identified said they are seeing certain restrictions on food services, as a result of the outbreak.
For example, she said there are certain restrictions on food, in which any food items that aren't individually wrapped must be disposed of. In addition, the soda dispensers and coffee machines pose risk for contamination, and patrons are asked not to bring in their reusable mugs.
Pat Richardson, administrator at the Friendly Village in Rhinelander, said the long-term care facility has implemented several restrictions to protect residents.
"We're following CDC and other public health guidelines right now," Richardson said. "Our visitation is completely restricted with the exception of compassionate visitation for our residents, and that would be residents who are in the end stages of their lives, or when it might cause distress for a resident not to be with their loved ones."
Friendly Village has also implemented virtual visitation to help families stay connected, she added.
"We only have one entrance to our building right now," she continued. "Everyone who enters the building, including our own employees, any physicians or anybody who comes into our building has to be screened. That screening includes taking their temperature, asking them questions about any symptoms they might be having like a sore throat, runny nose or cough. If they're positive on any of those, they may not enter the building."
Richardson said the staff at Friendly Village is also doing enhanced cleaning measures for infection control and re-educating staff and residents on handwashing procedures.
"Internally, every single one of our residents are getting their temperature taken daily," Richardson explained. "They're getting respiratory assessments daily, and if they show any signs or symptoms of some sort of infection, then we start the surveillance process and isolate them the best we can."
"We have also restricted communal dining in our facility, as we're enforcing the social distancing as best we can with the type of population we have," she continued.
Because the elderly are at greatest risk for complications due to the coronavirus, Richardson said it is of the utmost importance to protect their residents.
"We serve the most vulnerable population," Richardson said. "We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect our residents from both outside visitors and when they're in our building, by practicing good infection control policies and limiting visitation."
In addition, Richardson said all nonessential appointments and outings for their residents have been postponed until further notice.
While some local businesses are struggling for customers, other businesses are seeing more patrons than average.
Christine Kerver, a pharmacy technician at Hometown Pharmacy, said she has seen more people coming in to stock up on medications.
"It's a lot of panic we're seeing right now," Kerver said.
"As of right now, we haven't been having any issues getting medications," she continued. "The only issues we're seeing are over-the-counter medications, like hand sanitizers and cough medicines. We do still have some in stock, but those are really the only items we're having issues getting right now."
As of the time of this writing, Kerver said there aren't any restrictions in place at Hometown Pharmacy nor do they plan on closing.
In addition, she said the pharmacy delivers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She said if individuals are feeling ill, they can call the pharmacy from the car and an employee will bring those prescriptions out to those individuals.
While businesses are doing what they can to follow all restrictions and keep their employees and customers safe, it is unknown how long this situation will last.
"This really, truly is a situation we've never faced before, especially in the United States," Conlon said soberly. "We have known that there will be a pandemic at some point in the future, and this time in the future is now. We are responding as best we can as a community, as a state, as a nation and as a world."
"The hope is that by implementing all these measures, that we have put enough distance in our spread of the disease in order to not overwhelm our healthcare system," Conlon added. "You may not be in the population that will become infected or have serious complications if you do, but if we do not self-isolate, if we do not implement social distancing, then the healthcare system becomes overwhelmed."
The moral of the story is to remain cognizant of our actions and how they affect others.
While young, healthy individuals may not be at risk in the same way older generations are, they still can be carriers of this disease and infect populations who are vulnerable. Or, as Conlon pointed out, if there aren't enough resources available at local healthcare facilities, then the potential problems become exponential.
"It will impact all people at some point in time," Conlon said.
For updated information on COVID-19 and links to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Health (DPH), visit the Oneida County Health Department's website or Facebook page.
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