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La Crosse and Onalaska prepare for early in-person voting

Tents now grace the La Crosse City Hall parking lot, where voters may be directed to wait if a crowd forms for early in-person voting.

The city, urging many voters to vote early, recently adjusted its in-person absentee voting hours, which is still taking place at City Hall despite being closed to the public for other matters.

All early in-person voting at City Hall will be done in the council chambers on the first floor, but to make sure any potential crowds can be spaced out appropriately, the city has placed the tents outside for overflow waiting.

Right now, La Crosse voters can cast an early in-person ballot from now until April 3. Regular weekdays will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and noon to 5 p.m. on April 2-3, the last two days of in-person absentee voting.

In Onalaska, the city has also limited its hours for in-person early voting.

Those ballots can be cast at City Hall on March 26-27 and April 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and April 2-3 from 1-5 p.m.

Officials are urging Wisconsinites across the state to vote earlier than its regular April 7 election date.

One way to vote early is by casting a ballot in-person by April 3 at your local clerk’s office. You can register at the same time as casting this ballot.

But the suggested method is requesting a mail-in ballot, hopefully never having to leave your home and increase your exposure.

To cast a ballot by mail, you first have to be registered at your current address. You can still do this online until March 30.

Then you can request a ballot online or over email with your local clerk’s office. They will mail a ballot to you to fill out and mail back. A witness and their signature is required for this mode of voting.

You can request a mail-in ballot until April 2 at 5 p.m., but have a few more days to fill the ballot out and mail it back in — just ensuring it gets to your clerk’s office by the time polls close on April 7.

Emergency rescue deal reached

WASHINGTON — Senate leaders raced to unravel last-minute snags Wednesday and win passage of an unparalleled $2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure is the largest economic relief bill in history, and both parties’ leaders were desperate for quick passage of a bill aimed at a virus that is costing lives and jobs by the hour.

The package is intended as a weekslong or monthslong patch for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide.

Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.

“A fight has arrived on our shores,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we’re going to win it.”

“Big help, quick help, is on the way,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

But the drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators demanded changes, saying the legislation as written “incentivizes layoffs” and should be altered to ensure employees don’t earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working.

Complicating the standoff, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has flagged, said he would block the bill unless the conservatives dropped their objections.

Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said: “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the package “goes a long way.” He said it will require strong oversight to ensure the wealthy don’t benefit at the expense of workers and proposed forgiving at least $10,000 of student loan debt as part of the federal response.

McConnell and Schumer hoped passage of the legislation in the Republican-led Senate would come by the end of the day. Stocks posted their first back-to-back gains in weeks as the package took shape over the last two days, but much of Wednesday’s early rally faded as the hitch developed in the Senate. The market is down nearly 27% since setting a record high a month ago.

Senate passage would leave final congressional approval up to the Democratic-controlled House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bipartisan agreement “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people” but she stopped short of fully endorsing it.

“House Democrats will now review the final provisions and legislative text of the agreement to determine a course of action,” she said.

House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber is unclear.

House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for President Donald Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington. But that may prove challenging, as the bill is sure to be opposed by some conservatives upset at its cost and scope. Ardent liberals were restless as well.

White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway Wednesday, shortly after midnight, capping days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure. The wording of some final pieces of the agreement need to be completed.

The sprawling, 500-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

It would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

McConnell, a key negotiator, said the package will “rush new resources onto the front lines of our nation’s health care fight. And it will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible to help Americans workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar.”

Five days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among Congress’ top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure was never an option, which permitted both sides to mark big wins.

“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at Schumer’s insistence. Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Jim Mone 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz addresses the media during news conference, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn., where he gave an update on the state's effort to slow down the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Tony Dejak 

FILE - In this March 24, 2020, file photo, members of The Ohio National Guard assist in repackaging emergency food boxes for food distribution at the Cleveland Food Bank in Cleveland. The use of National Guard units around the country to help with the response to the coronavirus pandemic is prompting rumors of a national lockdown or even martial law. Guard units are now helping to transport medical supplies, distribute food and even help direct traffic at drive-through testing sites. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

Republican leaders agree with Gov. Tony Evers plans to proceed with April 7 election

Republican leaders in the state Legislature say they support Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ current plan to proceed with in-person voting in the April 7 election — a decision that has drawn some criticism over concerns that doing so in the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak could put people at risk of infection.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, held a conference call with reporters Wednesday to discuss the outbreak, the upcoming election and Evers’ “safer-at-home” order to shut down nonessential businesses across the state.

In regard to the election, both GOP leaders expressed support for continuing with plans to hold the election, which features a Wisconsin Supreme Court race and hundreds of local races, on April 7, while also encouraging absentee voting.

“I support the decision to move forward. I know we can do it safely and at this point I’m agreeing with Gov. Evers that we should continue,” Vos said. “I think this is too important for us to not move forward.”

Vos added that legal counsel have notified him that Evers would need legislative approval to postpone the vote or move it to an all mail-in election — as some some Wisconsin officials and organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, have suggested.

The city of Green Bay and the city’s clerk, Kris Teske, on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit that alleges that local governments are finding it “functionally impossible” to administer the election and maintain social distancing.

Also this week, Madison’s city clerk said roughly half of poll workers scheduled to work the election have canceled. In Middleton, 25 of the city’s 72 poll workers, including two chief inspectors, will not staff Election Day.

“I understand, things are getting much different out there and there are obviously a lot of concerns about what will that look like on election day … with the amount of poll workers and volunteers that you’re going to need,” Fitzgerald said. “So we’re monitoring it very closely … but at this point I don’t see a change.”

‘Safer-at-home’ order

Gov. Tony Evers this week ordered nonessential businesses to shut down until April 24, while exempting a wide range of employers, from farms and factories to grocery stores and retailers that supply those working from home.

Vos and Fitzgerald both said they felt the order, which was announced Monday before details were revealed on Tuesday, created confusion among some business owners and employees, but added they still are working through the order to determine the full impact.

“No, it wasn’t the smoothest thing that certainly has happened so far, but I understand, we’re in a difficult period of time here and things like that are going to happen,” Fitzgerald said.The “safer at home” order went into effect Wednesday and forces many businesses that draw walk-in traffic to close as officials try to minimize the spread of the respiratory disease.

Ordered to close are playgrounds, clothing and sporting good stores, entertainment venues, bowling alleys and golf courses and fitness centers, among others. Malls also are ordered to close unless a business attached to a mall provides an essential business or service.

The order includes many exemptions for businesses deemed essential, including health care providers; critical infrastructure; takeout and delivery food services and carryout alcohol sales at restaurants and bars; social service agencies, including food banks; grocery stores, pet suppliers and pharmacies; post offices and shipping companies; and child care facilities, with some limitations.

State officials have asked individuals with questions on the directive, including those with businesses or places of employment that have been ordered closed, to visit the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s website, wedc.org/essentialbusiness. The site includes a form that can be submitted if a business believes it should be exempted.

WEDC spokesman David Callender said the corporation had received nearly 2,000 inquiries as of midday Wednesday regarding the order.

“WEDC is receiving an unprecedented volume of inquiries from citizens looking for help for their businesses and employees,” Callender said in an email. “WEDC staff are fielding hundreds of these inquiries every day and are trying to respond as quickly as possible. We are asking companies to be patient with us, to not re-submit their inquiries.”

Callender added that businesses that have been identified as nonessential under the rule are required to follow the order, while those that are unsure if they are subject to the directive should contact WEDC for clarification.

Evers has said the order is based on input from health care experts and scientists along with those in the business community.

Without the order to close more businesses, state health officials said the outbreak could rise to 22,000 cases of the respiratory disease, including 440 to 1,500 deaths, within two weeks. An increase in cases still is expected for the next few weeks, but officials have said the hope is to see numbers begin leveling off.

Job loss began to skyrocket across the state more than a week before the “safer at home” order was issued, with more than 105,000 initial unemployment insurance claims made from March 18 through Tuesday, according to preliminary numbers from the Department of Workforce Development. Just over 4,800 initial claims were made in the same seven-day span last year.

On Tuesday, DWD announced that, in accordance with Evers’ order, the department’s job centers will be closed to the public. Services will remain available online and over the phone.

La Crosse County Health Department reports total cases now at 12

The La Crosse County Health Department has announced the first two cases of COVID-19 attributed to community spread, and on Wednesday revealed the number of total positive cases had increased to 12, with two females receiving positive results March 25.

The two cases of community spread, meaning the individuals had no relevant travel history or contact with an infected person, are attributed to two men who tested positive March 24.

The first patient infected via community spread is a male in his late 20s who first developed symptoms the week of March 9 and was tested for COVID-19 March 23 after his condition worsened. The second individual is a man in his late 70s with a history of interstate travel but not to a location with known spread. He was also tested March 23. Both are currently experiencing mild to moderate symptoms and have not required hospitalization.

More details and community notices will be released when a comprehensive disease investigation is completed. Anyone identified as potentially at risk will be contacted by the health department.

The two cases confirmed Wednesday involve women in their early 20s to early 30s with mild to moderate symptoms, and both are in isolation in their homes.

“This report provides even more reason to take Governor Ever’s ‘Safer at Home’ order seriously,” Jen Rombalski, director of the La Crosse County Health Department, said of the presence of community spread. “We fully expect that we will see additional cases of the virus in the county but hope that our media outreach and guidance is helping to convince county residents to stay home to disrupt the spread of the virus.”

According to Ever’s mandate, Wisconsinites are to leave their residences only for imperative reasons, such as to purchase groceries and gas or to seek medical care. Employees considered essential, such as health care and public safety workers, are exempt.

As of early afternoon March 25, the total number of positive COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin was 585, with 10,089 negative and six deaths related to the virus.

The La Crosse County Health Department continues to stress the importance of social distancing, isolation, hand washing and sanitation. Anyone with even mild symptoms of cold or flu should stay in their homes. COVID-19 tests will continue to be reserved for those considered at high risk for severe symptoms of the virus, and individuals must call Gundersen or Mayo Clinic Health Systems in advance to be screened for test qualification.

For updates, visit the La Crosse County Health Department’s website or Facebook page.