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Masked UW-Eau Claire students walk between classes in September. The Eau Claire City-County Health Department said Thursday it will not renew its public health order, citing a lack of enforceability stemming from an Eau Claire City Council decision this week to postpone a vote on a controversial public health ordinance.

EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire City-County Health Department will not renew its countywide health order that formerly limited indoor and outdoor gatherings and required businesses to operate at 50% capacity.

Eau Claire County has had a coronavirus order in place since May, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court knocked down Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide safer-at-home order.

Health Department officials said Thursday that it’s not issuing another countywide health order because it can’t enforce the order in the city of Eau Claire, due to an Eau Claire City Council decision this week to postpone a vote on a controversial, proposed public health ordinance.

The proposed ordinance involves the ability of the local health director to issue health orders during a communicable disease outbreak, and the ability of local government officials to decide if the order should be enforceable or not. The City Council on Tuesday voted to postpone the vote, likely until mid-2021, so a task force can work on the proposal.

“The disease (COVID-19) hasn’t changed because the City Council voted to postpone (the decision),” said Lieske Giese, Health Department director, at a Thursday press briefing. “ … I want you to know the vote did result in enforcement not being an option for those specific entities that may be blatantly choosing not to follow public health recommendations, and at the point in time where we had an order, requirements. But we all can play a role in what happens next.”

As of today, Eau Claire County does not have a countywide coronavirus order restricting the size of gatherings or mandating restrictions for businesses.

Instead, the Health Department plans to release an “expectations document” shortly, Giese said.

“This week our order is changing to a document that will be around public health expectations,” Giese said. “ … Our state and community are at a point where we can’t let up on the gas pedal.”

The expectations will be “very similar” to the standards in the county’s most recent order, which limited indoor gatherings to under 100 people and outdoor gatherings to under 250, and restricted some indoor spaces to 50% capacity.

But the list of expectations will advise that gatherings include 25 or fewer people, Giese added.

Despite no local health order, statewide orders still apply in Eau Claire County, Giese noted. Wisconsin’s mask mandate is still in effect, though Republicans are suing to end it. (“That order is still in place,” Giese said Thursday.) A Wisconsin judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked an order from Evers’ administration ordering bars, restaurants and other indoor spaces to operate at 25% of capacity.

The Health Department isn’t issuing another public health order for the county, at least not right now, Giese said. But she noted that the Health Department will consider bringing direct legislation to the City Council “if the disease spread gets beyond the 37 (average) cases a day (we have) right now, which is already at a concerning level.”

Some Wisconsin communities have passed mask ordinances as direct legislation, Giese said, comparing it to a parking or other municipal ordinance.

A very similar ordinance to the one postponed by the City Council is going before the Eau Claire County Board for a vote next week. (If approved by the County Board, that ordinance wouldn’t apply to the city of Eau Claire due to the latter’s home rule status, city attorney Stephen Nick told the Leader-Telegram this week.)

“We still encourage people to pay attention to the number of people present in any establishment,” Giese said. “We encourage people to find ways … to be patrons of local businesses that don’t require you going on site.”

Cases leveling, but activity still ‘very high’

The nonrenewal of the county’s health order comes as COVID-19 cases begin to level off slightly in Eau Claire County — but the state still says the county has a “very high” activity level for the virus.

Eau Claire County has seen 471 cases in the last two weeks, compared to 508 as of last Thursday.

On Thursday, the county identified 37 new cases of the virus. Of the just over 2,500 county residents who have tested positive, 258 people are considered to be active cases, according to county data.

Eighty-three county residents have ever been hospitalized with the virus. Twelve of those people were hospitalized in the last week, Giese said.

Nine county residents have died of COVID-19, including one new death in the last week.

Giese asked the public to take recent deaths in the community from COVID-19 seriously.

“Over the past six weeks, the average daily deaths have more than tripled,” Giese said. “...I want to tell you that again, anybody that gets COVID-19 and dies related to that disease is being accurately counted in our system. It’s not dissimilar to someone with pre-existing conditions who get hit by a car and dies. Their cause of death is being hit by a car.

“I think we all need to remember that this disease … is causing minimal symptoms in many people but it is causing many people in our state to die. Especially that those deaths are occurring over summer and fall, when we typically don’t see many people die of respiratory illnesses.”

As of Monday, a total of 472 students related to UW-Eau Claire tested positive for the virus — up from 428 last Monday — and eight total faculty or staff members have tested positive, according to the university’s coronavirus tracking dashboard.

Those totals include students who live both on- and off-campus, according to the university.

As of Thursday, 12 UW-Eau Claire students were in isolation on campus, and another 34 were in quarantine.

The percentage of all cases in Eau Claire County since Sept. 1 that are related in some way to UW-Eau Claire is “holding steady at about 30%,” Giese said.

New metrics staying fairly consistent

Coronavirus tracking metrics released Thursday by the Health Department suggest that the virus is beginning to spread more slowly in the region — but that COVID-19 is still far above where state and county officials want it to be.

  • The county’s test-positivity rate, or the percentage of all tests that come back positive, is at 8.7%, compared to last week’s 9%.
  • The community spread percentage, or the portion of people who test positive who don’t know where they contracted the virus, is 42% over the last 14 days, compared to last week’s 38%.
  • Contact tracing measures are “doing a bit better, but are still concerning,” Giese said Thursday.
  • Contact tracers were able to contact 82% of new cases within 24 hours this week, compared to 78% of new cases the week before.
  • Contact tracers were able to reach 58% of close contacts within 48 hours. Last week that metric sat at 36%.

Giese again urged people to pay attention to quarantine requirements. If you’re told you’re a close contact to someone who tested positive, “you need to quarantine for 14 days,” she said. Even if you test negative for COVID-19 before 14 days have passed, people are still required to stay home and not attend work, school, gatherings or events outside their home.

Statewide, Wisconsin hit a new daily high for confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations on Thursday, a surge that the state’s chief health officer called a crisis.

There were 3,747 new cases reported Thursday, blowing past the record of 3,279 set on Tuesday. The number of people hospitalized continued its steady increase this week, rising to a new all-time high of 1,043.

Testing opportunities

A three-day-per-week testing site is open on the west side of Eau Claire, 6697 U.S. 12. The site is free, does not require insurance, is staffed by the Wisconsin National Guard and is open for anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms or who is a close contact to someone who tested positive. The site is open through Dec. 7: Mondays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. People are asked to register the day of their test at register.covidconnect.wi.gov, or in person at the testing site.

A similar site, also staffed by the Wisconsin National Guard, has opened in Augusta. Testing is free and no insurance is needed. That site is open Wednesdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Augusta Senior and Community Center, 616 W. Washington St., Augusta.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline is 715-831-7425.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.