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Churches in Baraboo, Portage get creative during closures, look forward to reopening

When Gov. Tony Evers first issued a “safer-at-home” order to address the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in Baraboo and Portage had to get creative to continue providing worship services to their communities.

With the order lifted and churches able to reopen, they are faced with similar challenges.

Church administration at First United Methodist Church in Baraboo is still trying to find a safe way to resume in-person services, but plans to follow recommendations from the health professionals, said Kerri Olson, the chairwoman of the church’s administrative council.

“We have been working with the Sauk County Health Department and emergency management department for them to guide us,” Olson said. “We will be using data to inform our decision, to make sure that we are using information that the county provides that advises if we’re ready to go from phase one to phase two or phase two to phase three.”

When the church initially had to stop in-person services in March, administration and the Rev. Marianne Cotter quickly moved to Facebook Live for Sunday services, which was a major change from plans they’d made for services and events at the church a week earlier.

“We made our decision quite early. We had a day-long planning retreat on March 7,” Olson said. “We were all ready to move ahead with our goals and plans. By March 16, only nine days later, we were making the decision to close the church. We found ourselves in a completely different space, and decided to err on the side of caution.”

Since the start of the safer at home order, the church used Facebook Live to stream its usual Sunday services and has conducted video meetings for Sunday School and Youth Group Services.

“We immediately started doing online worship, and we had not been doing that, so we had to learn as we go,” Olson said.

While the church has no concrete opening date, it is now allowed to have no more than 10 people in the building at once to comply with Sauk County guidelines. It will continue to do virtual services, Olson said.

“The main concern is the physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being and safety of our congregation,” Olson said. “We don’t want to put anyone at risk.”

For St. Joseph Catholic Church in Baraboo, the need for virtual services during the coronavirus pandemic didn’t catch the Rev. Jay Poster off guard, as the church had already been live-streaming services for five years.

Poster said the only difference between his usual virtual services and ones he created since the pandemic was giving them to an empty church.

“We have been live-streaming our Masses for five years, so we just continued to do that, except people couldn’t come anymore,” Poster said. “It’s a little empty feeling, but it’s still the prayer. The Mass that we offer is still a prayer, so there is still that communication with God. We miss the people.”

St. Joseph’s is open, and is allowing 10 people in the church at once. Poster says they have worked out a lottery system where 10 names are drawn at random each week and those people are allowed to attend services in-person.

“We ask people to submit their name if they want to come, and we draw them at random and make sure everyone gets at least one chance to come,” Poster said. “It looks like the government has changed the situation so that we can open for more pretty soon.”

In Portage, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church also began providing virtual services, complete with an organist performing hymns and sermons from the Rev. Greg Hovland.

Hovland also began providing social distancing communion, where no more than 10 people would be in the church at once.

“We were doing individual or household communion in our sanctuary,” said Hovland. “I think it worked well, we had multiple times for people to do that. We had around 80 to 90 households that participated each week.”

The church also offered individual, at-home communion options.

Hovland said he plans to reopen the church for services of around 50 people present on May 27. He said the church will also be adding two additional service times to accommodate as many people wishing to attend in person.

The church will also continue to do virtual services for church members who have health concerns.

“We’re trying to be safe and smart,” said Hovland. “We understand that while safer at home has been lifted, the disease is still out there.”

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Baraboo, Portage libraries reopening Tuesday with restrictions, safety measures

Public libraries in Baraboo and Portage will reopen Tuesday with various restrictions and safety measures in place after being closed since March, offering only curbside services for the last month.

“We are excited. We are ecstatic,” said Debbie Bird, Portage library director. “The staff is so eager to reconnect with the community. They felt a little better when we were offering curbside, but now that we’ve been offering that for a while, they’re ready to step it up to the next level. ... We just love the idea of being there to support our community and to offer what we’ve always been able to offer.”

Starting Tuesday, the Portage library will begin the first phase of its reopening plan, which will allow a maximum of 10 people — including staff — in the building at a time for 30-minute appointments during limited hours to accommodate cleaning between visits. Patrons must reserve appointments and will be able to browse the library’s collection, read newspapers and use the fax machine and computers.

The second phase would allow 50 people in the library at a time, but Bird said the timing depends on whether local COVID-19 cases spike.

“This is our initial attempt and we’re hoping that we get smarter about it and get more efficient,” she said. “I think that we’re hoping as we navigate this that we continue to improve services, maybe relax some of the protocols, but right now we want to start with this.

“It’s a mystery to all of us on how this is going to work exactly, and we hope that everybody can just remain patient with us and understand that we’re trying to offer as much as possible without risking anybody’s health.”

Baraboo’s library director, Jessica Bergin, created a slightly different plan. It includes returning the library to its standard hours starting Tuesday with a full staff, but still no volunteers, and limiting the total number of visitors at any time to 10. Groups and children will be allowed, but a library staff member will count visitors and direct patrons to wait outside if the total reaches 10. The back entrance will be closed.

Bergin said patrons can browse and check out materials from the children’s department, though the play areas will remain closed.

Both libraries will have hand sanitizer available throughout their buildings and staff will be required to wear masks or face shields. In Baraboo, plexiglas dividers around their desks will limit exposure between patrons and employees, Bergin said.

“Our No. 1 priority is to keep staff and visitors safe, so we do have a sanitizing schedule set up where we’re sanitizing things like door handles and stair rails and all of that kind of high-touch stuff ... on a regular basis,” she said.

Because Portage will be limiting entry, Bird said staff will be able to monitor and later clean items that patrons use, such as computers and surfaces. Items they touch while browsing will be quarantined, and high-touch surfaces will be frequently wiped down. Restrooms will be open, she said.

Bird said Portage is looking into getting plexiglas barriers but has found them difficult to acquire due to high demand.

Patrons won’t be required to wear masks or practice social distancing at either library, but both directors said they are requesting people do so voluntarily.

“We are strongly encouraging patrons to wear masks,” Bird said. “We cannot offer masks to them, so I don’t feel that we can enforce that, but we’re hoping by our own exercising of safety, using the masks ourselves and asking people to do that as well as social distancing, we’re hoping that people will just take our lead on this.”

Also hoping to keep in-library visits available to those who need to use computers, want to browse the collection or use other services that can’t leave the building, Bird said the library will continue to offer curbside assistance. Baraboo also plans to continue curbside requests.

Their in-house collections remain the majority of what they can loan because the South Central Library System, which usually can exchange materials between libraries, is making infrequent deliveries.

Bergin said the Baraboo library can still request items from other libraries, but fulfilling them could take a “long time.” In Portage, however, Bird said the materials that ended up there from other libraries during the closure will be used to fulfill local requests before being returned to their original library.

At both libraries, book drops are currently open and returned materials quarantined for three days before being mixed back into their collections, a practice meant to ensure no live viruses remain. Bergin said patrons should use the outdoor book drop on the Baraboo building’s alley side to help staff manage quarantine procedures.

After months of being closed, she said she’s looking forward to welcoming patrons back. She added that many people have said they need access to a computer, printer or fax machine.

“We consider a lot of our library patrons our friends, so it’ll be nice to start seeing people again,” Bergin said. “Plus, people are just really excited to be able to browse in the library again.”

GALLERY: Baraboo, Portage libraries adjust to changes caused by COVID-19

Biden remark meets criticism (copy) (copy)

ATLANTA — Joe Biden declared he “should not have been so cavalier” on Friday after he told a prominent black radio host that African Americans who back President Donald Trump “ain’t black.”

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee quickly moved to address the fallout from his remark, which was interpreted by some as presuming black Americans would vote for him. In a call with the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce that was added to his public schedule, Biden said he would never “take the African American community for granted.”

“I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” Biden said. “No one should have to vote for any party based on their race or religion or background.”

That was an acknowledgement of the stinging criticism he received in response to his comments, which he made earlier in the day on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio program that is popular in the black community.

The rebukes included allies of Trump’s reelection campaign — anxious to go on the offense after weeks of defending the Republican president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic — and some activists who warned that Biden must still court black voters, even if African Americans overwhelmingly oppose the president.

“None of us can afford for the party or for this campaign to mess this election up, and comments like these are the kinds that frankly either make black voters feel like we’re not really valued and people don’t care if we show up or not,” said Alicia Garza, a Black Lives Matter co-founder and principal of Black Futures Lab.

Near the end of Biden’s appearance on the radio program, host Charlamagne Tha God pressed him on reports that he is considering Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is white, to be his vice presidential running mate. The host told Biden that black voters “saved your political life in the primaries” and “have things they want from you.”

Biden said that “I guarantee you there are multiple black women being considered. Multiple.”

A Biden aide then sought to end the interview, prompting the host to say, “You can’t do that to black media.”

Biden responded, “I do that to black media and white media,” and said his wife needed to use the television studio.

He then added: “If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.”

Trump’s campaign and his allies immediately seized on Biden’s comments. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a Trump supporter and the Senate’s sole black Republican, said he was “shocked and surprised” by Biden’s remarks.

“I was struck by the condescension and the arrogance in his comments,” Scott said in a conference call arranged by the Trump campaign. “I could not believe my ears that he would stoop so low to tell folks what they should do, how they should think and what it means to be black.”

Trump himself has a history of incendiary rhetoric related to race.

When he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump called many Mexican immigrants “rapists.” Campaigning in 2016, he asked black voters, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

In 2017, he said there are good people on “both sides” of the clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators that left one counterprotester dead.

In 2018, Trump blasted four Democratic congresswomen of color, saying they hate America and should “go back” to where they come from, even though all are U.S. citizens and three were born in the U.S.

Black voters helped resurrect Biden’s campaign in this year’s primaries with a second-place finish in the Nevada caucuses and a resounding win in the South Carolina primary after he’d started with embarrassing finishes in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire. Sixty-one percent of black voters supported Biden during the primary season, according to AP VoteCast surveys across 17 states that voted in February and March.

Biden is now seeking to maintain his standing with black voters while building the type of multiracial and multigenerational coalition that twice elected Barack Obama, whom he served as vice president. He has already committed to picking a woman as his running mate and is considering several African American contenders who could energize black voters. But Biden is also considering candidates such as Klobuchar, who could appeal to white moderates.

There is little chance of a sudden shift in support for Trump among black voters. A recent Fox News poll shows just 14% of African Americans who are registered to vote have a favorable opinion of Trump, compared with 84% who view him unfavorably.

Seventy-five percent of African American registered voters say they have a favorable view of Biden; 21% hold an unfavorable opinion.

There is a risk, however, of black voters, especially those who are younger, staying home in November, which could complicate Biden’s path to victory in a tight election. The Breakfast Club is a particularly notable venue for Biden’s comments because the program is popular among younger African Americans.

Several black women are among those under consideration to be Biden’s running mate, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Florida Rep. Val Demings, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge and Susan Rice, Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Trump: Reopen churches (copy) (copy)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday labeled churches and other houses of worship as “essential” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend even though some areas remain under coronavirus lockdown.

The president threatened to “override” governors who defy him, but it was unclear what authority he has to do so.

“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now — for this weekend,” Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn’t answer a theoretical question.

Trump has been pushing for the country to reopen as he tries to reverse an economic free fall playing out months before he faces reelection. White evangelical Christians have been among the president’s most loyal supporters, and the White House has been careful to attend to their concerns throughout the crisis.

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.

Following Trump’s calls for reopening houses of worship, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.

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. Some parts of the country remain under some version of remain-at-home orders.

In-person religious services have been vectors for transmission of the virus. A person who attended a Mother’s Day service at a church in Northern California that defied the governor’s closure orders later tested positive, exposing more than 180 churchgoers. And a choir practice at a church in Washington state was labeled by the CDC as an early “superspreading” event.

But Trump on Friday stressed the importance of churches in many communities and said he was “identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services.”

“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 added.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said faith leaders should be in touch with 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.

A person familiar with the White House’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said Trump had called the news conference, which had not been on his public schedule, because he wanted to be the face of church reopenings, knowing how well it would play with his political base.

Churches around the country have filed legal challenges opposing virus closures. In Minnesota, after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz this week declined to lift restrictions on churches, Roman Catholic and some Lutheran leaders said they would defy his ban and resume worship services. They called the restrictions unconstitutional and unfair since restaurants, malls and bars were allowed limited reopening.