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Health board rejects call for more COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, gatherings
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Health board rejects call for more COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, gatherings

School hallway

The Board of Health for Madison and Dane County on Wednesday declined to call for tighter restrictions on nonessential businesses and gatherings to curb COVID-19, after considering a letter signed by more than 360 people seeking stricter controls in hopes of allowing schools to open in person sooner.

The eight-member board — which oversees the city-county health department, Public Health Madison and Dane County — heard at its monthly meeting from several people who spoke in support of the letter but took no related action.

“We’ll continue to try to work to do what feels best for the health of the public,” board chairman Dr. Jerry Halverson said.

Kim Whitmore, vice chairwoman and a mother of two school-age children, said she would “rather have my children get a little behind in school than end up in the hospital or die as the result of a virus.”

Malia Jones, a UW-Madison infectious disease epidemiologist who runs the Facebook page Dear Pandemic and is the mother of two elementary students, sent the letter to local officials last week. The letter, signed by 363 other people, asked for an immediate ban on nonessential, high-risk gatherings in public and private settings to further reduce the spread of the coronavirus. That could allow schools to reopen in person more quickly, the letter said.

“Having schools open for in-person instruction, with priority on the youngest grade levels and those who require access to supportive services, should be our absolute highest priority,” the letter said.

“Allowing adults to congregate in bars, restaurants, gyms, retail locations, and private parties is absolutely not essential and is actively compromising the health, safety, and education of the children of our county, particularly the most vulnerable,” the letter said. “This is a major failure of the social contract. It is insanity.”

The same day Jones sent the letter, the Board of Health drafted a letter to Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, supporting the department’s Foward Dane plan outlining when restrictions could be tightened or eased.

“We are aware of recent concerns raised about the Forward Dane plan by elected officials and wish to offer our full support,” the board’s letter said. “Forward Dane is a data-driven approach that carefully balances the immediate health and safety of our community with economic well-being, which we know is a critical social determinant of health.”

Chamber stance

Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, told the State Journal it’s inappropriate to call for more business restrictions when very few local cases of COVID-19 have been tied recently to businesses. Officials should maintain a balance between public health, the economy and consumer confidence, he said.

“A failed economy has public health consequences,” he said. “To vilify and blame businesses, who are doing everything they can to stay open, to keep people employed, to support our economy ... is problematic and a significant potential disruption to the equilibrium.”

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Several school districts in Dane County, including Madison, Monona Grove, Middleton-Cross Plains and Sun Prairie, plan to start the school year entirely online, at least through the first quarter. Other districts, such as DeForest, Edgerton and Verona, will offer some degree of in-person instruction.

Roller coaster

In mid-June, the local health department eased restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and retail establishments and allowed larger indoor and outdoors gatherings. Soon after, the county saw a surge in COVID-19 cases, with officials attributing some of the increase to gatherings in bars and households, especially among young adults.

Officials tightened measures again in early July, reducing indoor dining at restaurants from 50% of capacity to 25% and limiting the interior of bars to take-out service. Indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people or fewer and outdoor gatherings to 25 people or fewer, not including employees.

The county started the state’s first indoor mask mandate July 13, followed last week by a statewide mandate issued by Gov. Tony Evers.

Concerns for UW

The average daily number of new COVID-19 cases in the county recently has been 50, less than half that of the peak in late June and early July but more than double the average before mid-June.

Jones’ letter said the Sept. 2 start of UW-Madison’s fall semester, with a mix of online and face-to-face classes, could make the situation worse.

“Without intervention, the return to campus life in September is all but guaranteed to exacerbate a problem that has already harmed our county’s economic welfare and social justice goals, and could lead to the need to continue virtual K-12 instruction through the entire 2020-2021 school year,” the letter said.

COVID-19 in photos: How Wisconsin is managing the pandemic

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