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Gov. Tony Evers talks schools, COVID-19 and future of the senate

Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers said that parents and students should prepare for the school year to look different when it starts in the fall, as one topic among several in a chat with the La Crosse Tribune on Friday afternoon.

“It’s going to be different. It’s going to be kids sitting in a row, with masks on maybe,” he said, referencing a set of optional guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for schools that was recently released.

“I think parents and kids actually should start to prepare for a future that might look different this fall,” Evers said.

As the state reopens, Evers said he feels greatly indebted to Wisconsinites for the precautions they’ve taken to save lives.

But as the state begins to reopen and more residents leave their homes and get out in their communities, a resurgence of cases is possible.

“I believe going forward, even though there’s more options available, that people will do things reasonably,” he said.

And though Evers’ executive orders relating to COVID-19 efforts were recently considered an overreach of power, he said his administration still has a job to do.

“If there is a second wave, or if there is a surge over the next several weeks, we have a huge role to play,” Evers said of the possibility, emphasizing that the state would continue to support more testing, contact tracing and personal protective equipment.

Evers announced this week how his administration would distribute the roughly $1.9 billion the state received through the federal CARES Act, which went to things like rent assistance, nursing homes, small businesses, farmers and food banks.

But the Dairy State governor was critical about the federal government’s role in pandemic efforts.

“I haven’t had any discussion with President Trump,” Ever said. “Frankly, and this isn’t meant as a statement of disrespect, but we need to get things done, and the president’s view of the world as it relates to this kind of waxes and wanes, and it’s hard to keep up.”

Instead, state leaders have been working directly with Vice President Mike Pence, he said, who was appointed to lead the federal COVID-19 task force.

“If we had to do it over,” the federal government would ideally have complete control over the country’s materials, equipment and testing, Evers said.

“They could have done better than having 50 states competing with each other,” he said.

But he complimented the work that local governments have done despite skewed guidance from above.

“Once the Republicans went to the Supreme Court and succeeded in what they wanted to do,” Ever said, “local governments have really stepped to the plate.”

He said he was proud of the work counties and cities or villages have done, but that public health is a great avenue to consider how all levels of government can collaborate more.

“We have many counties where the counties take the lead, and some where the cities take the lead. And I see some pretty good collaboration there, and I think it could be a model for local governments,” Evers said.

The state Senate battleground

In Wisconsin, at least seven state Senators are not running for reelection in the fall, paving the way for Democrats to take back the majority or for Republicans to create a supermajority.

And Evers said the fate of the Senate is particularly important for fair maps in the state.

“If indeed the Republicans get a supermajority, that would mean that they could override any veto that I do,” he said, “and my veto is the only thing that’s standing between some fair maps and having the same gerrymandered maps for the next 10 years.”

Among the seven state Senate seats being vacated is that of former Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, who announced she wouldn’t seek reelection in April, and stepped down as leader last week.

Running in Shilling’s place is Democrat Brad Pfaff, who is seeking a seat in the same body that denied him as Evers’ appointee to lead the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Evers appointed Pfaff to the position in 2018, but last November, Senate Republicans rejected the nomination over comments about mental health assistance in the dairy industry.

“Brad was an outstanding person as secretary-designee of agriculture, he was doing a great job and was treated poorly by the Republicans,” Ever said.

“And yes, I’d much rather have him working for me, but I know he’ll do a great job” if he wins the Senate district, Evers said.

Photos: A look at the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in the La Crosse area
Photos: A look at the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in the La Crosse area

Workers install scaffolding Thursday for a restoration project at St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral in downtown La Crosse.

Decision on Grandad Bluff trail civil suit postponed 2 weeks, hearing scheduled for June 5

A judge postponed his decision Friday on a group’s last-ditch effort to stop the multi-use trail project below Grandad Bluff, now officially known as “The Gateway.”

Judge Todd Ziegler ordered the city of La Crosse to do everything in its power to stop construction on the trails until the next hearing, scheduled for June 5, while both parties gather evidence and fine-tune their arguments.

But the city stated that it didn’t have the power to stop the construction directly, which is slated to begin June 10, because the contract was between Outdoor Recreation Alliance and the trail crew.

The city instead has an ongoing memorandum of understanding with ORA for management of the blufflands, which officials indicated would be enough to pause the construction if the court needed longer to decide.

The group of petitioners, which include the Grandad Bluff Coalition and various concerned citizens, filed the lawsuit on May 15 seeking a temporary restraining order barring the city of La Crosse from constructing a portion of the trail, and an eventual permanent injunction halting it.

But the city’s attorney indicated this was a flaw with the petitioner’s argument because the construction of the project was contracted through ORA, which is currently not part of the lawsuit.

The roughly five-miles of new multi-trail use will begin construction later this month.

“Up until today, we did not hear this argument; we did not know the contract was signed by ORA,” said Christine Clair, a signed petitioner and the groups legal representation.

The city, represented by Ryan Braithwaite, also indicated that they would be arguing that the petition was the improper step to halt the project and that its arguments were not factual.

The petitioners indicated that they would be using an independent environmental study done by a UW-Madison professor in its argument, which cites the building of trails would cause irreparable harm to the bluff.

This ongoing battle over the trail project started earlier in the year, when residents who lived at the base of the bluff reported that they feared it would cause environmental damage to the bluff, put their homes at risk of landslide or erosion, and an increase in traffic in their neighborhood.

But the city disagreed, saying that the construction of the trail would eliminate existing rogue trails that were causing more damage to the bluff, and make the area more accessible to manage litter and graffiti on the land.

Judge Ziegler also indicated issues he had with the petition, including whether the lawsuit was the correct action for the opposing party and the significance of how the petitioners would be impacted by the project.

“What rights exactly are we talking about? Are they Constitutional rights, statutory rights, rights by contract? Are they just basic moral rights?” he said.

“Is that in and of itself sufficient, that there is irreparable harm to the bluff itself, that’s not irreparable harm to the plaintiff?” Ziegler said.

The hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. June 5, and will take place via Zoom, where a decision will be made on the temporary restraining order.

Photos: A look at 55 iconic places in the La Crosse area
Photos: A look at 55 iconic places in the La Crosse area

Trump: Reopen churches

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that he has deemed churches and other houses of worship “essential” and called on governors across the country to allow them to reopen this weekend despite the threat of spreading the coronavirus.

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House, where he didn’t take questions. He said if governors don’t abide by his request, he will “override” them, though it’s unclear what authority he has to do so.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had prepared a draft of reopening guidelines for churches and other houses of worship weeks ago that included measures like maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings.

But that guidance had been delayed for more than a month by the administration until Trump abruptly reversed course Thursday.

“I said, ‘You better put it out.’ And they’re doing it,” Trump said Thursday at a Ford Motor Co. plant repurposed to make ventilators in Michigan. “And they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We’ve got to get our churches open.”

It is unclear what the final guidelines will say, but public health agencies have generally advised people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged Americans to remain 6 feet away from others when possible.

Meanwhile, the United States says it wants the World Health Organization to start work “now” on a planned independent review of its coordinated international response to the COVID-19 outbreak, at a time the Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the agency and is threatening to cut off U.S. funding for it.

Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sent a letter to the U.N. health agency’s executive board meeting on Friday saying the United States believes the WHO can “immediately initiate” preparations such as bringing together independent health experts and setting up guidelines for the review.

“This review will ensure we have a complete and transparent understanding of the source, timeline of events, and decision-making process for the WHO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Giroir, who is one of the board’s 34 international members. Giroir did not deliver that statement in person, but did briefly participate in the board’s first-ever “virtual” meeting.

Giroir alluded to a resolution passed Tuesday by the WHO’s assembly calling on Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to launch a “comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO-coordinated international response to the outbreak “at the earliest appropriate moment.”

Tedros, for his part, spoke to the board and pointed proudly to a long list of actions taken by WHO to respond to the outbreak — without directly alluding to the Trump administration pressure that was highlighted by Giroir.

“As President Trump just made clear in his May 18 letter to Director-General Tedros, there is no time to waste to begin on the reforms needed to ensure such a pandemic never happens again,” Giroir added. “We applaud the call for an impartial, independent, and comprehensive review, to be undertaken in consultation with member states, and urge that work begin now.”

In that same letter, Trump warned he would make permanent a temporary freeze on U.S. funding for the WHO unless it commits to “substantive improvements” within the next 30 days. He has repeatedly criticized the WHO for its early response to the outbreak and praise for China, at a time when Trump’s own response of the outbreak in the United States —the largest in the world — has come under criticism.

In Washington, Trump, who has been pushing for the economy to reopen even as the virus continues to spread, on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and took issue with other businesses and services that have been allowed to continue to operate.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential” but not churches, he said. “It’s not right. So I’m correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.”

“These are places that hold our society together and keep our people united,” he said.

Churches have the potential to infect large groups of people if precautions aren’t taken. A church in Northern California that defied the governor’s orders and held a service on Mother’s Day was attended by a person who later tested positive for the coronavirus, exposing more than 180 churchgoers.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House’s coronavirus task force, said that faith community leaders should be in touch with their local health departments and can take steps to mitigate risks, including making sure those who are at high risk of severe complications remain protected.

“There’s a way for us to work together to have social distancing and safety for people so we decrease the amount of exposure that anyone would have to an asymptomatic,” she said.

The chances of quarterback Jack Coan and the Badgers playing a full 2020 season appeared remote a few weeks ago, but there have been many encouraging signs of late.

No new COVID-19 cases in La Crosse County; results from Thursday's testing event expected this weekend

La Crosse County remained at 48 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 Friday, with results from Thursday’s Wisconsin National Guard testing day expected this weekend.

In total, 304 nasal swab tests out of an available 400 were administered during the eight-hour free testing event held at the Onalaska OmniCenter, which was open to residents 5 and older with one or more symptom of COVID-19.

Results, which will be relayed directly to the people as well as to the community via the La Crosse County Health Department, will likely be available sometime this weekend. An application for two additional testing days, likely to be held in Downtown La Crosse in early June, was submitted Friday to the Wisconsin National Guard.

“We know that testing is a really critical aspect to find out more about this virus,” La Crosse County Health Department director Jen Rombalski said during a Friday afternoon press conference.

In total, La Crosse County has had 4,050 negative tests of the virus, and of the 48 positive cases, all but 10 are recovered, and no one is currently being hospitalized. On a state level, there have been 14,396 confirmed cases, 172,703 negative tests, 2,259 related hospitalizations and 496 deaths from COVID-19.

During the press conference, Rombalski touched on a concerns regarding schools and places of worship. Of the former, a list of CDC considerations for school reopenings has been widely circulating on social media, and Rombalski noted that while classrooms, if open, will look different in the fall, the guidelines on the post — proposed suggestions include eating in lunch in classrooms, virtual assemblies and temperature screenings — are not mandates at this time.

In terms of resuming religious gatherings, Romabalksi said: “My guidance for our county and surrounding counties continues is that we continue to be doing the virtual aspects for worship.” In terms of congregating with non-family members in any capacity, the data, she said, “doesn’t tell a lie and the data tells us we are not yet ready.”

This includes Memorial Day events, such as picnics, parties or boating. The La Crosse County Health Department continues to urge social distancing, limiting public excursions, wearing a face mask when outside the home and thorough hand-washing and sanitation.

Rombalski also shared that a new data tool will likely debut next week on the La Crosse County Health Department’s website and Facebook page, with a four quadrant compass compiling COVID-19 numbers. Data will reflect the current and prior week’s cases, and also have an indicator of whether the county has a high, moderate or low risk status on a given day.

Photos: COVID-19 drive-thru testing at Onalaska OmniCenter
Photos: COVID-19 drive-thru testing at Onalaska OmniCenter