Adding another layer of antiviral measures — and challenges for parents — Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday placed restrictions on child-care center capacity as part of a statewide response to the spread of COVID-19, which now tops 100 cases statewide.
Evers also officially requested federal disaster loans, underscoring the devastating impact the order to close schools, restaurants, retail establishments and other businesses is expected to have on owners and employees in an effort to slow the spread of the respiratory disease.
“Social distancing and self-isolation are critical steps in reducing and preventing the spread of this virus in our communities, but it comes at an economic cost to our local businesses,” Evers said in a statement.
Under Evers’ latest order, which takes effect at 8 a.m. Thursday, child-care centers will not be allowed to operate with more than 10 staff members or more than 50 children present at a time. The order remains in effect for the duration of the public health emergency Evers declared last week.
The order will limit the availability of child-care services statewide, so providers are asked to give priority to families of health care and essential service providers, Evers said in the statement. Those who can keep their children at home are asked to do so.
“I know many Wisconsinites are looking for ways to help during this crisis,” Evers said in the statement. “If you are able, keeping your kids at home is one of the actions you can take to have the most impact.”
Of the 4,500 child-care providers in the state, Department of Children and Families Secretary Emilie Amundson said 1,244 are licensed to serve more than 50 children at a time. Amundson added that it’s difficult to say how many centers already have closed their doors due to the new coronavirus.
The department will try to connect parents who need child care with services and explore ways of expanding child-care offerings statewide, Amundson said.
“Providers can still close if they wish. Many have already made the decision to do so, but many have not,” Amundson said. “So we’re working actively to keep our finger firmly on the pulse of the folks in both camps and help support the folks who are seeking to continue to provide these vital services.”
As of Wednesday, the state reported 106 cases of COVID-19, including 23 in Dane County. Even more concerning, Dane, Milwaukee and Kenosha counties have reported cases of community spread — when individuals become infected and it’s not known how or where they were exposed.
People with cough, fever and shortness of breath or who have traveled to places with widespread COVID-19 or been exposed to people with the disease should contact their doctors about getting tested. Health officials asked people to call ahead so clinics and hospitals can be prepared.
Evers on Wednesday also asked the federal Small Business Administration for loan assistance for businesses and private, nonprofit organizations in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
If approved by the SBA, businesses can begin submitting loan applications. Applicants can seek up to $2 million per business to assist with overcoming a temporary loss of revenue.
“The loan assistance from SBA will help alleviate some of the financial burden and stress on our small businesses during this public health crisis,” Evers said. “We will continue to work with our federal partners, state officials, and stakeholders to ensure we are improving public safety and health while protecting our state economy.”
In a web conference with state business leaders and owners Wednesday, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Secretary Missy Hughes said she expects the SBA will open applications “within the next 48 hours or so” but said she expects the SBA will be “inundated” with applications. These types of loans typically come after regional disasters, such as floods or hurricanes, affecting a much smaller group of businesses.
“I think we all need to recognize there’s going to be a lot of inundation and to be patient as best we can as those loans come through,” Hughes said.
Hughes said several business groups, such as various chambers of commerce and small business development groups, will be working with the state and SBA to manage those applications and loan distribution.
The WEDC Board on Tuesday approved a $5 million grant program to help employers meet payroll expenses, including paid leave, and rent.
The grants, which would be capped at $20,000, will be available to businesses that are unable to secure loans from conventional lenders and borrow from the state’s 23 community-development financial institutions.
Hughes conceded the grant program is a “drop in the bucket” for the state’s more than 92,000 small businesses but said WEDC is considering future efforts to aid businesses, including a possible request for an infusion of funding from the state Legislature.
In the web conference, Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said businesses likely don’t have to close just because one employee gets sick from the coronavirus.
Local public health departments will inform businesses if one of their employees tests positive for the virus and will isolate other employees who were in “close and regular contact” with the sick employee.
“If one person in an office or one person on a factory floor tests positive for this disease, it does not mean you have to close the whole operation down,” Willems Van Dijk said.
Evers on Tuesday ordered all bars and restaurants in the state to close and banned gatherings of 10 or more people. The order ends sit-down service at bars and restaurants statewide but allows for takeout or carryout orders, typically a small percentage of a restaurant’s revenue. As a result, one Madison restaurant group, Food Fight, announced it was furloughing 750 employees.
Also on Tuesday, Evers called on state lawmakers to pass emergency amendments to expedite Wisconsin’s unemployment benefits.
Evers said he will issue an executive order asking the Legislature to repeal Wisconsin’s one-week waiting period for unemployment compensation insurance. He also plans to ask lawmakers to waive requirements that recipients look for work and make other modifications to speed unemployment benefits to those unable to work during the crisis.
With businesses shuttering, Caleb Frostman, secretary of the Department of Workforce Development, said in a statement the department is seeing increased applications for unemployment insurance and employment, although specific numbers were not available Wednesday.
DWD plans to keep most job centers open across the state to assist job seekers and employers.
“During this time of economic uncertainty, it is important that the public know our staff are available to assist them as employment situations are quickly changing,” Frostman said in a statement.
Despite a rocky relationship at times between the governor and Republican leaders in the Assembly and Senate, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos released a joint statement noting they had a productive discussion with Evers on Wednesday regarding the state’s future response to the virus.
State officials plan to hold daily conversations to discuss future action related to coronavirus.
State Journal reporter Shelley K. Mesch contributed to this report.
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