Gov. Tony Evers approved a “safer-at-home” order Tuesday to restrict groups and travel during the COVID-19 outbreak; however, that doesn’t mean La Crosse County law enforcement will be pulling people over to check whether travel is essential, said La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke.
“I think it’s safe to say that this doesn’t give police the right to stop a vehicle. People could be going any one of the excepted locations,” Gruenke said Tuesday.
The order instructs everyone in Wisconsin to stay at home or at their place of residence except when doing certain activities defined as “essential.” Those who can’t stay at home are required to maintain a distance of at least six feet from others, consistent with the social distancing requirements.
People are allowed to go to the grocery store or gas station, to hospitals or other human service operations, or to work on any essential infrastructure. While playground equipment was closed by the order, people can still visit public parks to do things such as walk or bike, but group sports such as basketball, soccer and football are prohibited.
The order says that violation or obstruction of the order is punishable by up to 30 days imprisonment or up to $250 fine.
When it comes to how the order will be enforced, the La Crosse Police Department referred the Tribune to the district attorney’s office, saying it would take its lead from the county’s top prosecutor.
Gruenke said that people would not need proof they are going to an essential business, and police wouldn’t be pulling people over to check where they are going.
“As far as large groups of people, I think it would be limited to a large house party, or something like that for police to have a reason to stop them,” Gruenke said.
People who are homeless are exempt from the order and strongly encouraged to find shelter as soon as possible.
People whose homes or residences aren’t safe, including victims of domestic violence, are permitted to leave home and find a safe alternative location.
Wisconsin’s spring primary is in just two weeks, and as statewide efforts to combat the pandemic keep ramping up, worries on how the polls will look are, too.
Election officials at many polling stations in the area are fearful that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic will keep some of its workers at home, many of them older with underlying health conditions — putting them at higher risk if they catch the disease.
Across the state, Gov. Tony Evers has called for a “safer-at-home” order until April 24, requiring all non-essential businesses to close and limiting communities to essential travel only.
And both state and federal governments as well as the CDC have called for no groups larger than 10 people and distancing at least six feet in between people. All of this puts a lot of limitations on workers and voters come election day.
States that have already hosted a primary election have experienced waves of poll workers cancelling, leaving election officials struggling to fill the spots.
Wisconsin has about 30,000 poll workers across the state, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
So far, in the 32 La Crosse County polling places and 18 municipalities, only about 20 poll workers have chosen not to work on April 7, County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer said.
“I think overall, there will be enough poll workers to make election day happen,” she said.
But smaller communities in the county are being hit in bigger waves than others.
The village of West Salem has lost nearly half of its 22 poll workers.
“It’s not good,” said Teresa DeLong, the village administrator. “And I don’t blame them. I do not blame them.”
“I don’t understand how they expect us to do this. We’re under so much pressure,” DeLong said of clerks around the area who are balancing putting out a fair and accessible election against community health risks.
One woman who opted out of working West Salem’s polls on April 7 said she felt like she had no choice.
“It was a difficult decision,” said Judy, a 73-year-old West Salem native. “And listening to the info that’s given out by the government that we’re supposed to be more cautious. I didn’t know what the safety cautions would be there. I don’t know how they could have people come in and vote.”
Judy, who did not want her last name printed in this story, started working the polls about a decade ago after retiring and has been doing it ever since.
“They said they needed volunteers and I thought it would be something that I could give back to my community and it would be interesting,” she said. “And I’ll go back to it.”
To fill the gaps, election clerks are reaching out to schools and libraries and posting on social media to look for volunteers, many people now faced with sudden free time. Some of the clerks have even asked their own families to step in and help.
In the town of Hamilton, it has virtually lost all 10 of its poll workers, two of them saying they’ll help if there’s no other option, and the town chair offering his assistance if needed, too.
“We’re just going to have to play it by ear and see what happens,” said Sara Schultz, the town clerk, whose son has already been helping out in her office with the influx of absentee votes.
One man did step in to help the town after hearing about its loss of poll workers.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” said Randy Christenson. He volunteered to work the polls for the town of Hamilton after hearing almost all of its workers weren’t able to because of the pandemic.
“A lot of people have just disappeared because they’re scared of being in public,” the 55-year-old said. “I get it, I totally understand it.”
Christenson owns Salem Surface Prep, a mobile paint stripping company, and said business has “dropped off pretty drastically because of this.”
“So it’s just another way to keep myself busy,” he said of the poll working.
He said he’s not worried about working at the polls if he takes the right steps like wearing a mask and washing his hands.
Any adult who is able to vote in a respective district, has good English language skills and is not a candidate on the ballot can be a poll worker, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Volunteers are not paid, but if you are appointed by your municipality you may be compensated.
All poll workers are trained by the clerk of the voting district to do any number of tasks, such as count ballots, register voters and assist voters with equipment.
But the fears extend even further than putting our at-risk community on the polling front lines, and many election officials are hopeful the primary will be postponed.
“If us clerks get sick, honey, there’s no one running elections. So we’re just holding our breath here for two weeks,” DeLong said, “I am just angry. I am disappointed we can’t even postpone this a month.”
Even with the safety protocols in place, like using wipes and distancing people out six feet, there are still human interactions at the polls that are unavoidable, some said.
Poll workers will still need to hold a person’s state ID to confirm them at the polls, and then the voter will need to sign the poll book, like every voter before them and after them.
“It’s just going to be too close of contact that I’m not really even comfortable with myself,” Schultz said.
Every person would still also be handed a ballot by a poll worker and use the crammed polling booths to fill it out.
“We can supply wipes, we can supply gloves, we can supply a pen for every voter — but I really don’t know how we keep our election clerks safe,” DeLong said. “For the governor to say shelter in place, don’t go out, no more than 10 people, but yet we still have to run an election? It is beyond comprehension.”
Officials across the state have urged voters to utilize early mail-in voting,
“For the first time ever, I’ve requested mine by mail,” Dankmeyer said, noting she is usually a big advocate for visiting the polls on election day. “We don’t know what will happen in a week or two … that’s why we want to get everybody to vote now, everybody by mail.”
But voting by mail comes posed with its own risks, ballots being sent through the mailing system twice, going in and out of people’s homes, and being physically handled by both the voter and the clerks when it’s all said and done.
“As I opened my mailbox I was like, ‘oh great’,” Schultz said of processing the absentee ballots that have come into the town of Hamilton’s office. “But you have to do it. I mean, I did it with gloves on. You have to do what you have to do.”
A witness is also required to be present and sign your mail-in ballot, potentially pulling some people out of self-isolation just to cast their vote.
As of Tuesday, Evers has indicated that the state will not postpone its April 7 election date, and some can understand why.
“We don’t know how long this is going to go. And I mean, if this goes through the summer, then you have a major election in November,” Judy said, adding that the uncertainty was another reason for her to opt out of working the polls. “Hopefully by then this is all done with and we can get back to normal.”
And the area has more than just the presidential race to think about this election, with every county board seat up for reelection, a mayoral race in Onalaska, school board races and a state Supreme Court seat all on the ballot.
“There’s so much more on the ballot than just the presidential primary. That’s why I think we can’t really delay this election, because there’s so much on it,” Dankmeyer said.
Wisconsin’s first election of the year was in February, and along with the April 7 date, it will see two other elections statewide before the year is up.
One thing is clear: These are unprecedented times that have a particular ticking time clock that is Nov. 3.
“If us clerks get sick, honey, there’s no one running elections. So we’re just holding our breath here for two weeks. I am just angry. I am disappointed we can’t even postpone this a month.” Teresa DeLong, West Salem village administrator
So far, in the 32 La Crosse County polling places and 18 municipalities, only about 20 poll workers have chosen not to work on April 7.
Gov. Tony Evers’ order to shut down nonessential businesses for a month will go into effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday, shuttering even more businesses across the state.
The order, Monday, is similar to “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” directives already issued in other states including California, Ohio and Illinois and includes many exemptions for businesses deemed essential, including:
“Each and every one of us has to do our part to help slow the spread of COVID-19 so we can flatten the curve to ensure our doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers have the opportunity to do their important work,” Evers said in a statement. “Let’s all do our part and work together.”
State officials have said the directive will be enforced by local law enforcement.
Under the order, residents still are able to make essential trips to the doctor, pick up medications at a pharmacy, go shopping for necessary items, care for a family member in another household and care for adults, minors or dependents.
Residents are also reminded to avoid social gatherings, wash their hands frequently, cover sneezes and coughs, avoid touching their face and stay at home as much as possible.
Schools, nail salons, spas and sit-in services at bars and restaurants already have been closed down due to the respiratory disease, which has infected more than 400 people across the state.
Preliminary numbers from the Department of Workforce Development show that more than 21,000 initial unemployment claims had been made Monday, the most in a single day since businesses began shutting down as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. There were about 1,400 initial claims made on the same day last year.
There were more than 95,000 total initial claims made between March 17 and Monday. In the same seven-day span last year, about 4,700 initial claims were made.
As of Monday, Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 416 cases of COVID-19. Officials with Public Health Madison and Dane County said that of the more than 1800 tests completed in Dane County so far 70 have come back positive.
Five deaths have been reported in Fond du Lac, Ozaukee and Milwaukee counties.
The La Crosse County Health Department reported five more cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, bringing the local total of positive tests to 10.
The newest cases involve a man in his late 20s, who developed symptoms March 9 and was tested Monday; a women in her early 30s with U.S. travel history to a location with high incidence of the virus; a man in his late 70s who has mild symptoms and no fever; and two women in their late 30s to early 40s who are believed to be a direct contact to a previous lab confirmed case.
“We are finding mild symptoms are causing spread more than we previously thought,” La Crosse County Health Department director Jen Rombalski said during a Tuesday press conference. “(S)o please take mild symptoms seriously.”
It is not yet known whether any of these cases are due to community spread, Rombalski said. Should the La Crosse County Health Department’s investigations turn up evidence of community spread, the public will be notified immediately.
The total number of Wisconsinites who have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday is 457, with 8,237 negative results. There have been five deaths due to the virus statewide.
Rombalski during the press conference reminded people to stay home, which includes not rotating between households of relatives. Time outdoors is encouraged, Rombalski says, but only in the company of household members and away from public locations such as playgrounds. Social distancing, thorough hand washing, and sanitation remain imperative.
Addressing the shortage of personal-protective equipment and the increasing number of crafters looking to assist, Rombalski said she greatly appreciated their willingness to contribute but urged sewers to temporarily put their projects on pause.
“We don’t yet have guidance on what type of masks work best and what the need is,” Rombalski said.
Rombalski requests those who are willing to stitch and donate fabric face masks email firstname.lastname@example.org to be part of a coordinated response effort once an appropriate pattern and fabric, as well as a supply approximation, is determined.
The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are giving $500,000 to help county residents through the COVID-19 pandemic. The sisters announced the gift Tuesday, hoping it will inspire others to give as well.
Of the FSPA gift, $300,000 has been allocated to the new La Crosse Area Emergency Response Fund, created last week by Great Rivers United Way and La Crosse Community Foundation to help people affected by the pandemic.
The remaining $200,000 will support needs identified by the Coulee Collaborative to End Homelessness in response to coronavirus.
With the sisters’ gift, the La Crosse Community Foundation and Great Rivers United Way have collected $739,000 in donations toward pandemic relief efforts in La Crosse County in just one week.
“In such uncertain times, we must take care of each other,” said Sister Eileen McKenzie, president of FSPA. “We’re grateful to be able to give in this way and hope others will give in the ways they’re able. The spirit of giving is contagious, and that’s the goodness we want to spread right now.”
Emergency response funds will provide funding to La Crosse County charitable organizations that offer direct services to its targeted populations. The aim is to help people hardest hit by reduced and lost work resulting from pandemic-related closures.
Funds allocated for the Coulee Collaborative to End Homelessness plan will support its plan to provide safe shelter, meals and other services to people without homes during the crisis.
“It’s heartbreaking not to be able to reach out in the ways we always have been able to,” McKenzie said. “We are used to being present with people in their time of need — praying with them, listening to them, holding their hands, driving them to their appointments, serving them in person. In this way, we can be part of the incredible collaboration of area organizations to meet community needs in the most efficient, coordinated manner possible.”
“This is more than a financial gift,” said Jamie Schloegel, executive director of the La Crosse Community Foundation. “This is a gift of hope, a reminder that we are in this together, and together we will help one another through it.”
Mary Kay Wolf, executive director of Great Rivers United Way, agreed.
“This kind of gift shows the tremendous dedication FSPA has to our communities. All of the donations coming in are displaying incredible community support for our neighbors. Thank you to everyone who is participating and thank you to the FSPA’s for leading by example,” Wolf said.
People who wish to donate to the La Crosse Area Emergency Response Fund may do so at laxcommfoundation.com. They may also mail gifts to the community foundation or drop them off at drive-thru lanes at the La Crosse or Onalaska branches of State Bank Financial.
Any assets remaining in the fund after the community’s COVID-19 response is complete will remain there to be available for the next community emergency.