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.”
Inside the numbers
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.”
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.
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