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Masked patrons stroll by the temporarily masked “Granny’s Garden” sculpture that greets visitors to the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market last month in Phoenix Park. The newest Eau Claire City-County Health Department public health order — which is in effect today and lasts for the next two weeks — loosens restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings.

In a new county order that went into effect today, Eau Claire County is loosening restrictions on the number of people at public gatherings, despite some changes in county virus data that health officials called “concerning.”

The new two-week order, which went into effect after midnight Wednesday, allows people to gather in larger groups and loosens other restrictions, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department:

  • Instead of a 50-person limit on indoor gatherings and a 100-person limit outdoors, public gatherings in the county will be allowed to host up to 100 people inside and 250 people outside.
  • Businesses won’t be required to provide 144 square feet of space for each household unit, but will be recommended to operate at 50% capacity.
  • One-on-one personal services won’t be required to close their waiting areas, but it’s still recommended.

Any large public gathering still needs to keep six feet of distance between household units, Giese emphasized Wednesday at a media conference.

The new order will be in effect through July 8.

Giese said the order will loosen restrictions “despite the fact that we have some very significant public health concerns.”

“We are making some changes because our capacity in public health and health care remains strong,” Giese told reporters Wednesday. “We remain very concerned about our disease data and we’ll be watching that carefully.”

Increasing cases

Cases continue to rise nearly daily in the county, and the portion of total tests that come back positive is also rising.

That average test-positivity rate for the last two weeks in Eau Claire County is 9.6%, according to Health Department data. It means almost 10% of tests done in those two weeks have returned positive.

It’s an uptick since earlier this summer: As of June 1, the county’s test positivity rate was 4.2%, according to county data. It’s also significantly higher than the state’s overall test positivity rate, which has hovered between 2% and 4% over the past 14 days.

Three more Eau Claire County residents have tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday, bringing the county’s total cases to 170. An estimated 137 are recovered, and over 7,400 have tested negative, Giese said. The county has recorded one death from COVID-19.

The number of county cases associated with ‘community spread’ — or the number of cases that don’t know where they could have contracted COVID-19 — has dipped from nearly 50% in early June down to 25% this week. But Giese still calls it a “concerning indicator that we have community spread.”

“Many of our cases are happening because people are getting closer than six feet (apart),” she said Wednesday, urging people to keep their distance from others that don’t live with them.

The state Department of Health Services on Wednesday bumped up Eau Claire County’s general COVID-19 risk, designating it “high-level” for COVID-19 activity. The county was designated at medium-level virus activity on Tuesday.

“It’s one measure the state is using as they consider how schools open up, as they consider how other activities happen,” Giese said of the state’s assessment.

Positive news

There’s also some good news in the county data. Local public health and hospitals are still easily able to handle the county’s number of coronavirus patients, Giese said, which is part of the reason why the Health Department is moving forward with a less restrictive countywide order.

Contact tracers have also been contacting 100% of recent cases within 24 hours, and have reached over 90% of close contacts within 24 to 48 hours.

“We have significant concerns, and it’s our responsibility to protect the public as the Health Department,” Giese said of the decision to slightly loosen the countywide order. “But we also understand we need to look at ways to load the responsibility for protecting each other at the community level.”

Local outbreaks

In addition to county-level data, the number of local outbreaks is concerning health officials, Giese said Wednesday.

The county has seen three new outbreaks in the last two weeks, including one at an Altoona nursing home. (Its goal is to have no new outbreaks in that two-week period.)

At any long-term care facility, investigations are triggered automatically whenever a case is found.

An employee at Altoona nursing home Oakwood Health Services tested positive, but has since recovered and returned to work, said Kristin Mueller, director of communications for North Shore Healthcare, which operates the nursing home.

Oakwood Health Services hadn’t had any residents test positive for the virus, Mueller told the Leader-Telegram on June 18.

“Our work with all our long-term care settings has been very positive and proactive,” Giese said. “That group is working hard to protect residents, and continues to test their employees and residents so that we have a good sense of that vulnerable population.”

People have also tested for the virus who were present at two Eau Claire businesses, Olive Garden and bowling alley Wagner’s Lanes, the Health Department said Wednesday morning. The department asked anyone who had dined at Olive Garden or at the inside bar at Wagner’s Lanes on specific June dates to get tested if they’re experiencing symptoms. For more information about the businesses’ potential COVID-19 exposure, see page 3A.

“We anticipate more,” Giese said of the outbreaks. “Our indicators are concerning this week. We are not incredibly surprised by that. We knew the more we opened up … that we would see more disease.”

Statewide, 432 new cases of the virus and seven new deaths were identified Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health Services. The state has seen 25,763 cases of the virus and 757 deaths in total since mid-March.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter