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Gov. Tony Evers bans gatherings of 50 or more people, adds restrictions to bars, restaurants

Gov. Tony Evers bans gatherings of 50 or more people, adds restrictions to bars, restaurants

Evers news conference

Under the emergency declaration he announced Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers has directed the state Department of Health Services to "use all the resources necessary to respond to and contain the outbreak" of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Gov. Tony Evers and state health officials are banning gatherings of more than 50 people in an attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19 across Wisconsin. 

The ban, which mirrors guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is effective beginning at 12 a.m. Tuesday and would not apply to “critical infrastructure” including grocery stores, food pantries, childcare centers, pharmacies, hospitals and airports. 

“What we’re doing right now is making sure the virus is not spread as quickly as it could and to minimize and mitigate those things happening,” Evers said Monday. 

Still, Evers announced that the state would allow bars and restaurants to remain open as long as they have fewer than 50 people inside or operate at 50% capacity, whichever is less. 

Those establishments would also need to follow guidelines on social distancing, which include keeping at least 6 feet between tables, booths, bar stools and ordering counters. The new language would largely be enforced by local law enforcement officials, and violators could face prison time or fines. 

The first-term Democratic executive joined a Monday morning call with President Donald Trump and other local officials from around the country to address steps taken to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Evers characterized the conversation as “everybody working together … to make sure people are safe.”

The state-level announcement came a day after leaders in Dane County issued a similar call limiting groups of people and restricting bars and restaurants to 50% of their capacities, while schools were ordered to close immediately. 

Evers on Friday ordered public and private schools to close by 5 p.m. Wednesday, though many districts have decided to close sooner. Monday's order wouldn't impact the statewide timeline, a spokeswoman for the governor said, with the closures effective until at least April 6.

Across Wisconsin, other governmental entities also worked to continue addressing the virus as the number of positive cases rose to 47, 10 of which are in Dane County, though one individual who previously tested positive has since recovered. Meanwhile, 504 have tested negative.  

Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm warned that going forward “there are going to be more disruptions in your lives.” 

“We are going to continue to ask you to do more social distancing,” she said. “I know this is difficult but this is how we’re going to prevent more people from becoming exposed and infected with COVID-19.” 

At the Department of Military Affairs, the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison moved to a Level 1 response to “improve coordination by bringing all state agencies together in a central location.” Per DMA, it's the first time the center elevated to that level for a health-related incident. 

And more than two dozen Wisconsinites aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship returned home early Monday morning to be self-quarantined after 21 passengers aboard the ship tested positive for COVID-19. More than 3,500 people were on board the Grand Princess in all. 

The 29 Wisconsin passengers were escorted home by the Wisconsin National Guard, Evers said, though two others opted to stay in quarantine in Texas and seven others remain in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services custody in California. None of those returning have tested positive for the virus.  

In Wisconsin, testing capacity has increased, and as many as 400 specimens per day can be tested, seven days a week, according to Bureau of Communicable Diseases chief medical officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard. Some hospitals also have testing on site, he added, while private labs are also coming online.

At the state’s labs, tests are turned around in one or two days, Palm said.  

Currently, Westergaard noted, there isn’t enough capacity for widespread testing, and he said those who have symptoms like the common cold don’t generally require testing and should self-isolate at home, out of close contact with others. For those experiencing a fever, cough and shortness of breath, he said testing is recommended.

April 7 election 

Evers said postponing the April 7 election is not on the table “at this time.” 

Instead, Evers urged individuals to vote via absentee ballot or cast ballots early. 

The state Elections Commission is urging anyone concerned about contracting or spreading the virus to vote via absentee ballot. Those interested face a Wednesday deadline to register to vote by mail or online at myvote.wi.gov; following Wednesday, individuals must register in person at their local clerk's office until April 3 or at their polling place on Election Day.  

To request an absentee ballot, voters can visit myvote.wi.gov or contact their municipal clerk's office. Voters who are already registered must request an absentee ballot by Thursday, April 2, though the commission suggests doing so as soon as possible. Those ballots must then be received at the clerk's office or an individual's polling place by 8 p.m. on Election Day

Evers also said he’s looking at possible legislation at the state level to address COVID-19. 

But he pointed to the U.S. House’s passage of a bipartisan coronavirus aid bill to fund testing and paid sick leave that cleared over complete opposition from the four Republican members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation. 

Urging residents to "call your senators and get them behind this," Evers noted the legislation would in part aid hourly workers — individuals that he said the state is "looking at all options" to assist. 

“Part of the answer will be the federal government but we have to be prepared in Wisconsin in case they fail to do their duties, but I think they will (do them) at the end of the day,” he said. 

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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