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June 1, 2020

5/22/2020 7:30:00 AM
Oneida County touts guidelines for businesses to reopen
Onward Oneida County is tough but not mandatory
Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Oneida County has issued its guidance for a phased reopening of businesses and other normal routines of life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its restrictiveness, with some exceptions, mirrors Gov. Tony Evers's Badger Bounce Back plan in many respects.

But, as was stressed repeatedly throughout Tuesday's virtual county board meeting, the guidelines are just that - guidance that the county is strongly recommending, but not a mandatory order that people must follow.

At the outset of the meeting, county board chairman Dave Hintz told supervisors that county and public health officials had acted quickly to put a plan in place after the state Supreme Court declared the state's Safer at Home plan unlawful and unenforceable.

"We came out with guidelines Friday afternoon, about 48 hours after the Supreme Court decision," Hintz said, adding that he had received some phone calls about the plan, called Onward Oneida County, from people wondering how the county could issue an order so similar to the state's plan that the high court rejected.

Hintz clarified that the county had not done so.

"We did not issue an order," he reiterated. "We issued guidance, and there's a significant difference. An order usually has penalties and enforcement. Guidance is telling people the right thing to do, how to act. It's guidance."

The health department and other health agencies have issued lots of guidance over time, Hintz said.

"There's guidance on how many calories we should take in, how much water we should drink, and how many hours of sleep we should get," he said. "I believe the calorie recommendation is 2,000 a day for a woman and 2,500 for a man. But the health department does not go out and cite somebody if they eat 4,000 calories in one day."

But Hintz said his analogy ended there because people who do not follow public health diet guidelines are only potentially hurting themselves, not others. That's not the case if people don't follow the COVID-19 guidelines, he said.

"But these guidelines, for the COVID-19 pandemic, if they are not followed by people, they could impact your neighbor," he said. "We are not going to go around and issue tickets and enforce it. It's guidance, the right way to do things. Like all guidance, some people will follow it carefully, some people won't follow it at all."

Still, Hintz said, from what he had seen in reopened restaurants and businesses, people are reopening strategically and in a smart way.

"And, for the most part, people are acting in an appropriate manner, and that's what we are hoping for," he said.

Oneida County public health officer Linda Conlon echoed Hintz's sentiments.

"We really looked long and hard at the reasons for guidelines versus an order, and, plain and simple, in our area, we tend to have great respect for our customers and for our employees and for our community and our neighbors," Conlon said. "We care about each other, and we really felt that guidelines were a better option, so people can follow them, and we want them to follow them obviously for public health reasons, but there is no law enforcement associated with that."

The guidelines

Conlon used her time with the county board to walk supervisors through the county's guidelines. The approach is to progress through the various phases of reopening, she said, continually assessing the most up-to-date Department of Health Services state and local data to determine when it is appropriate to progress to the next phase.

Among the data being looked for is a downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period; a downward trajectory of COVID-19-like syndromic cases reported in a 14-day period; a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period; the treatment of all patients without crisis care; having robust testing programs in place for at-risk health care workers; and decreasing numbers of infected health care workers

"When you look at all that, that's actually the gating criteria that moves people from Safer at Home into a phased approach," she said.

Much of the initial Onward Oneida County guidelines were simply recycled from the governor's phase one restrictions or were similar to them. Public gatherings, including church services, were recommended to take place with a maximum of 10 people, for example, while bars and taverns would remain closed in phase 1 except for carry-out and delivery.

Restaurants could open but best practices offered by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) were recommended. Those included marking any indoor or outdoor waiting area to enforce social distancing standards. The WEDC also recommends that one member of a party should be allowed in the waiting area, while others of the party wait in their vehicle.

Advance reservations were preferred, the WEDC guide states, and dining rooms were advised to maintain six feet separation between tables. Each table would be limited to six.

Under the initial Onward Oneida County plan, festivals, carnivals, fairs, concerts, and parades would also have remained closed in phase 1, as would swimming pools and theaters.

But, Conlon told the board, as officials evaluated the situation locally, they decided Onward Oneida County's phase 1 approach needed a little tweaking.

"With that phased approach, we decided that we can open up in phase one strategically and have everybody open, but the key part of that in Onward Oneida County's phase 1 is that hair shops and salons were not open, bars were not open, gatherings were still limited to 10 people, and theaters weren't open."

So, Conlon continued, when officials looked at all those factors, they felt strongly that they needed to reopen those other businesses, too.

So, under the new guidelines, hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, day spas, tattoo parlors, and tanning facilities are recommended to open, though with WEDC best practices. The guidelines recommend that outdoor gatherings not exceed 50 people, with indoor gatherings limited to 25 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer.

Bars get the green light so long as there is physical distancing and active monitoring of staff.

Theaters, amusement parks, arcades, trampoline parks, bowling alleys and related establishments can open but should not exceed 25 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer, and pools should not allow more than 50-percent capacity.

"Really what this amounts to is following WEDC guidance that we want people following," Conlon said, adding that she had received many positive calls supporting the guidelines while negative calls had been "slim to none."

Corporation Counsel Brian Desmond said another factor in avoiding an order and opting for guidelines was the lack of legal clarity over the ability of municipalities and local health officers to enact such regulations.

"The [Supreme Court" decision left the counties to determine what, if any, regulations they were going to put in place," Desmond said. " ... Looking at what authority is left for counties, it's still kind of a gray area that everybody is working through at this point in each county. That's part of the reason we issued guidelines as opposed to an order.'

What the county has put out are the best practices that people can abide by if they wish to, Desmond said.

"They can follow those guidelines to keep themselves safe and to try and keep their patrons safe," he said. "Again, it's not a requirement. There's no enforcement actions that are associated with those guidelines at this point."

Desmond said part of the thinking was that if guidelines were voluntary rather than mandatory, there would be more compliance.

"So the guidelines don't have to be followed, but it's public health's hope that people would follow those guidelines to keep themselves, their employees, and their patrons safe," he said.

One scheduled event of concern is the annual Hodag Country Festival, set to kick off July 9. Supervisor Jack Sorensen said there were both economic and public health anxieties.

"Country Fest is in my district," Sorensen said. "I've gotten calls not only from the people who are running it but concerns from other individuals. ... My concern is if the county is going to take a stance to attempt to close Country Fest, they should do it as quickly as possible. There's a whole lot of people out there, from an economic standpoint, the people who are running the place, they have to make a lot of decisions moving forward."

Sorensen said he didn't think a decision could wait until mid-June, given the festival dates.

"And a lot of folks are concerned about a large gathering of 30,000 people, give or take, descending on the town and Oneida County for a period of a week, give or take a few days," he said. "My point is, if the county is going to make a decision, we should do it as quickly as possible to give everybody a fair idea of where we're going."

Not quick enough

Supervisor Bill Liebert questioned whether the guidelines, if followed, would reopen the Northwoods quickly enough for many businesses and he also questioned whether the slower reopening represented by the guidelines was warranted.

"What I'm worried about is this is getting elongated in the sense of how we go about reopening, versus fully recognizing the risk of what it means to live in a republic and allow a business owner and a property owner to make their own determination," Liebert said.

Such guidance as limiting businesses to 25 percent or 50 percent of capacity will make it problematic for many businesses to reopen, Liebert said.

"When I hear restaurants talk about opening and the guidance or suggestion of seating people at every other table, if you actually look at the margin of profit at a restaurant, from what I understand, it's about 3 percent, maybe 5 percent if you really know what you are doing," he said. "If you go about having to seat people at every other table there's no point in opening up your business. You're not even going to break even."

Liebert said he would like the county to move the process of reopening much quicker than the guidelines propose.

"I just don't see the numbers justifying the kind of impact that we've already been facing," he said.

Liebert referred to what he called the manipulation of data in other states, and, indeed, concerns have been rising that death rates have been inflated by counting as COVID deaths those that are only "probable," as well as those who died with COVID but necessarily of COVID.

For example, Colorado revised its death totals downward by 25 percent last week in a count of people who died officially because of COVID-19 as opposed to those who died with COVID-19. The controversy erupted after a Colorado man who died of alcohol poisoning - a .55 blood alcohol level -

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