Hours after a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was announced Thursday in Sauk County, Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm made an emergency declaration.
The announcement was issued to the public via the county Nixle Information System slightly before 2 p.m.
“The health and safety of the citizens of Baraboo is top priority of the Baraboo Common Council,” it reads. “The Council and staff are working diligently to meet the needs of our citizens in light of the disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19.”
Under the declaration, City Hall and the Baraboo Police Department have restricted access to the public. While it remains open for absentee voting and registration for the April 7 election, city officials encourage residents to mail their ballots instead. Voters can request absentee ballots be mailed to them at myvote.wi.gov before 5 p.m. April 2.
City Hall staff will continue to work and appointments can be scheduled, but “face-to-face meetings are discouraged,” according to the announcement. Public transit will run as usual. If that were to change, the declaration indicates public alerts will be posted on the city website.
There was forewarning that a declaration may be coming. Baraboo council members held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the quickly adjusting city under mandates regarding the spread of a pandemic caused by COVID-19, a new strain of a virus which no one has immunity to and has killed 7,000 people worldwide as of Monday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Thursday, reports from John Hopkins University about the COVID-19 death rate in Italy indicated 475 people had died in 24 hours within the country.
Gov. Tony Evers had ordered gatherings of people restricted to 10 or less, calling on all restaurants and bars to close by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
The meeting was informational, with a number of officials noting their confidence in getting through the pandemic by working together with well thought out plans as confirmation of the virus loomed. At the time Jessie Phalen, Sauk County public health nurse manager, told the handful of people present that the county did not know whether any residents had been tested. Because of the reporting system, she said Tuesday, they were unlikely to find out until possibly being informed there was a positive case in the county.
Part of the meeting included discussion of a new employee handbook policy. The adopted language allows employees to be paid while forced to stay at a home as a tactic to ensure fewer people are infected over a longer amount of time. After the meeting, it was uncertain when certain “non-essential staff” would pick up that pay. Palm didn’t indicate whether a declaration would be made, but briefly explained how it could happen to council members and less than a dozen members of the public.
“We don’t know what the future has, but we still have to operate as a government,” Palm said, adding emergency declarations have been issued by the city in the past. “That may come to pass here, I don’t know. I’m just letting you know it can happen.”
Work to combat the effects of a pandemic brought on by a new coronavirus, COVID-19, continually changes in the face of new information. The Baraboo Public Library shuttered to the public Sunday evening, only opening its doors to let materials out by request on Monday and Tuesday. They are not accepting returns, Library Director Jessica Bergin said Monday, because there will be no staff to handle them. As of Wednesday, about 15 of the 20-person staff was forced to stay home.
City Administrator Kennie Downing noted there are 90 full-time city employees. Other employees throughout the city buildings have been limited. As Downing highlighted the new policy update Tuesday, she noted that staff members may not be working as they adjust to ensure people come into contact with one another as little as possible. She noted that Ochsner Park Zoo and the Baraboo Civic Center are closed.
Under the emergency declaration, use of park equipment and facilities for the public are also discouraged. The city recommends keeping unused or unwanted medications until the emergency has lessened. If drop-offs are absolutely necessary, the declaration notes visitors can use the red phone in the police department vestibule and an officer will pick them up. The public works and utilities facility is closed to the public.
According to the policy, “essential employees” are determined by Downing based on the needs of the city, but generally include police officers, firefighters and certain staff with the Department of Public Works and at the zoo. Downing said that would include sanitation collection and water and sewer workers. Some people may be shifted to other departments upon the department heads’ discretion.
For paid on-call firefighters, essentially volunteers, an incentive of their base pay rate plus half was added to ensure there are emergency workers in a time when many people may not want to risk taking on the virus or have other commitments at home due to school and work closures.
“We wanted to give confidence to our employees that would still be paid in an emergency,” Downing said. “If, for some reason, the mayor declares an emergency and we have to close the city down, we want to make sure that these employees get paid whether they’re full-time people, part-time people, or people who are crossing guards who would have gotten paid if the city were still open.”
The policy dictates that if employees are ill or caring for a family member, they will first use paid sick leave. If they had been approved for paid time-off during the closure, they have to use that allotted time and not use the policy.
The six Baraboo Common Council members present for the special meeting voted unanimously to update the policy with the new emergency declaration language. Members John Ellington, Scott Sloan and Dennis Thurow were absent.
If an employee runs out of sick leave when this policy is implemented, they can receive their usual rate of pay up to 40 hours per week until the emergency declaration is ended.
Per the emergency declaration, anyone looking to obtain a license or a permit must complete online applications. Inspection questions can still be sent to Building Inspector Megan Krautkramer. All “non-essential” committee and commission meetings are also canceled. Meetings will take place “as needed” and a phone number will be listed on agendas for audio participation.
Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.
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