Officials in Columbia and Sauk counties hope residents won’t feel a false sense of security during the COVID-19 pandemic as more businesses and public spaces begin to reopen.
The city of Portage announced Friday that more park amenities including playgrounds, park shelters and the skate park reopened and the city fire station and police station would be reopened to the public beginning Tuesday.
That doesn’t mean they believe the pandemic is over.
“In spite of what the (state) Supreme Court decision rendered, COVID-19 is still with us,” City Administrator Shawn Murphy said, “and so we are strongly encouraging people to maintain 6 feet of social distance.”
The city recommendations announced Friday also include no more than 10 people in an area at one time, staying home if sick, practicing good hygiene, sneezing or coughing into a tissue or elbow, avoiding touching one’s face and placing trash in trash receptacles. The city is also encouraging the wearing of masks in public places, Murphy said.
Mayor Rick Dodd said he approved the new guidelines Thursday and they will be considered for formal adoption by the Common Council on Thursday. Failure to follow the guidelines in Portage would not result in any arrests, fines or citations because there is no longer a statewide health order in place, but if residents don’t follow the guidelines over a long period of time, the city will consider closing public spaces again, Dodd said.
“Basically (our power) is in the properties and we’re allowed to close them and open them as we require,” Dodd said. “In the parks, if we see real abuse of the guidelines, we do have the right to go ahead and close them, but that’s probably as far as we’re going to go.”
Baraboo city officials decided against making public health guidelines mandatory in a special council meeting Tuesday, encouraging residents to stay at least 6 feet away from others, avoid groups larger than 10, wash their hands frequently and disinfect high-touch surfaces.
City and county leaders in both counties have leaned on the criteria and guidance from the State’s “Badger Bounce Back” plan and recommended their businesses follow the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation guidelines on how to open safely.
Sauk County Public Health Officer Tim Lawther said too many residents have demonstrated they don’t believe the health recommendations are as important as they were two months ago.
“I’m seeing a lot of folks who seem to be wandering around as though COVID-19 is not here,” Lawther said. “But it’s here, and I don’t see a lot of people wearing masks or face coverings and I see a lot of situations where people are not giving 6 feet of social distance. So I am concerned about it. I absolutely am.”
Columbia County Health Officer Susan Lorenz would not say if she’s seen a satisfactory number of residents adhering to health recommendations in public places, but stressed the risks of not following could be a matter of life and death for certain people in the community.
“Although the risk of severe illness may be different for everyone, anyone can get and spread COVID-19 and everyone has a role to play,” Lorenz said. Those at a higher risk for severe illness include people 65 years and older, people who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities and people of all ages with serious underlying medical conditions, she said.
“Because there are not yet vaccines or treatments for COVID-19, non-pharmaceutical interventions become the most important response strategy,” Lorenz said. “These are community interventions that can help reduce the impact of disease, like social distancing and good hand hygiene.”
Only four new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Columbia County since May 11, bringing its total infections to 37 with 28 recoveries and one death. The county jumped from five to 18 positive cases between March 26 and April 2, but saw its rate of new cases slow down even as testing for the disease increases steadily.
As of Thursday, Columbia County had completed 1,667 total tests during the pandemic — 1,063 of them occurring since April 17 and 459 tests occurring since May 11.
It has reported only 12 new cases of COVID-19 since April 17.
Columbia County — which has 57,000 residents — has averaged about 42 completed tests per day since May 11. It had averaged about 16 completed tests per day from April 2 to April 16 and 25 completed tests per day from about mid-April to mid-May.
Lorenz, earlier this month, said the increased testing serves as “an important health purpose” in the county’s response to COVID-19, but she didn’t comment on if she is satisfied with the total or daily average number of tests completed in Columbia County
Only one Sauk County resident has tested positive for COVID-19 since May 11, bringing its total number of infections to 77 with 69 recoveries and three deaths. The county jumped from eight to 18 positive cases between March 26 and April 2 before experiencing its biggest spike of new infections from April 29 to May 1, when an outbreak at a Wisconsin Dells dormitory caused the county’s total infections to rise from 45 to 64.
Since May 1, Sauk County has only 13 new cases of COVID-19 even while testing increased substantially. Sauk County has completed 2,558 tests — 1,560 of those occurring since May 1.
The county health department’s goal is to conduct 72 tests per day over a 14-day period, and as of Thursday, the county was averaging 77 tests completed per day, Lawther said.
Even as the county works to expand community testing sites and meet the short-term goals, its total testing is not yet where it should be, Lawther said. “We’ve had 2,500 people tested in Sauk County since this all started, and that’s just not a lot of people for a county with 64,000 people.”
“I think we’ve proven in these last couple of months that the Safer at Home measures worked and they worked as soon as they were enacted,” Lawther said. “If people are not following the guidance — not wearing the masks and congregating in big groups, and if our businesses are letting that happen, we will absolutely see an increase in new cases. If people protect themselves, it would be smaller.”
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.”