The Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce has begun scheduling monthly networking mixers and a larger gathering in fall — the local business group’s first in-person events since the coronavirus pandemic began.

David Minor, president and CEO of the local chamber, said the events will be done in accordance with recommendations from public health officials and there are backup plans for each one if there’s a flare-up of COVID-19 prompting tighter restrictions on large gatherings.

“There are multiple plans for all of these things we’re doing,” he said.

In a video sent to its members as well as a weekly email newsletter earlier this week, the chamber announced the return of in-person events after doing all of its activities online since mid-March.

The first is Business After Hours — a monthly networking mixer that will be July 13 at Westgate Sportsman’s Club.

“Networking — people still want to do it, but it’s going to be different,” Minor said.

Advance registration is mandatory for the event, instead of optional as it had been in the past. Requiring registration will keep the mixer under a capacity set by local health orders. Based on the venue’s size, there will be a maximum of 50 people allowed in the club, but up to 100 can congregate in an area outside the building.

Attendees will be asked to bring face masks to wear for protection against spreading germs.

When people check in on July 13, they will also be asked if they’re experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms.

The chamber has slated two events in late September, including one that attracted more than 450 attendees last year.

“We know that’s not going to be realistic,” Minor said of getting the same number of people together for Business in the Gardens.

For the chamber’s VIP reception planned for Sept. 23 at Florian Gardens, the maximum attendance is not yet known, but Minor said it will follow whatever limits public health officials have in place for gatherings at that time.

“Our numbers will match the numbers we’re allowed to have very precisely,” he said.

The current order from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department limits gatherings to 100 people in an indoors setting or 250 outdoors. That is scheduled to expire on Wednesday, likely to be replaced with a new set of recommendations from public health officials intended to reduce the spread of the virus.

As the coronavirus is seen to be less likely to be spread outdoors, the chamber’s Business in the Gardens is being designed to subtly usher attendees through the vendor booth area indoors and out to Florian Gardens’ backyard to mingle. Part of that is accomplished by moving the event from October to September, allowing for more time before sundown, Minor noted.

Should it become necessary to cancel the in-person event, Minor said the chamber is preparing its backup plan for how Business in the Gardens could be done virtually.

Audrey Boerner, a public health specialist with the local health department, said she has also heard of other event organizers begin to plan gatherings later this year, however, that could be tampered by a recent increase in COVID-19 cases. She recommends that organizers contact the health department to discuss measures to make their event is safe during the pandemic.

She expects social distancing — maintaining a six-foot distance between people — as well as wearing face masks and screening people for COVID-19 will continue to be in place for a while as public health precautions.

The current public health order also requires event organizers to keep a list of attendees with their contact information. That allows health department workers to do contact tracing if someone who attended an event tests positive for COVID-19.

“If there’s a potential exposure and can’t identify who was there, we have to make a public announcement,” she said, noting recent alerts about Eau Claire restaurants and taverns.

Whether that requirement gets waived in the future will depend on the disease’s status in the community, capacity for health care to handle cases and other metrics monitored by the health department.

The chamber’s other late September event — an annual Marketing and Social Media Conference slated for Sept. 30 — is already scheduled to be online only.

That’s partially due to that conference’s audience already expected to be tech-savvy, as well as the Chamber already having the capabilities to deliver presentations through the web-based Paragon platform it has been using to host its virtual meetings.

“That makes sense, we can do that online. It’s a lot of work, but we can pull it off,” Minor said.

The chamber hosted several virtual town hall meetings and continues to hold its committee and board meetings online. While chamber employees have returned to their downtown Eau Claire offices, visitors are not allowed, a situation Minor expects will last at least through Labor Day.

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