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Many downtown Eau Claire businesses including Micon Downtown Budget Cinema have been quiet since state officials ordered in March that places where large groups of people gather should be shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Eau Claire County residents should expect restrictions on large gatherings and businesses to continue, even after the county’s first, two-week-long public health order, is set to expire next week, health officials said Friday.

“We anticipate having an order continuing after next week,” Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, told reporters Friday. “This virus will not be gone as of next week Thursday.”

The two-week order is set to expire Thursday at 11:59 p.m., but officials said last week the order was always intended to be modified or extended — and that details on a new order will be made public Wednesday.

When the Eau Claire City-County Health Department first issued the order May 14, Giese said she hoped it would give the state Legislature time to come up with blanket, statewide guidance.

But that looks unlikely: Gov. Tony Evers told reporters on Monday that his administration won’t pursue creating an emergency statewide rule, citing Republicans’ oversight authority, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Republicans have suggested they prefer counties to decide on their own regulations.

The Eau Claire health department is likely to keep issuing new orders in two-week increments, Giese said. Officials hope easing restrictions slowly will let data reflect how the coronavirus spreads as people leave their homes.

“In two weeks, we’ll start having an idea of disease transmission at that point,” Giese said. “But really, it’ll take four weeks to see if the reopening of industries has impacted (case numbers). We are only now starting to see the impact of the safer-at-home order going away.”

The health department is concerned about local case numbers.

The county has identified six new cases since Thursday, for 95 total cases. Twenty-eight of those cases were identified in the last seven days.

The county’s positivity rate — the percentage of positives in the total number of tests — is at about 5% and is rising, Giese said.

“It’s very clear that our data right now is concerning,” Giese said. “I think people can see easily that our increase of cases is here, and our need to increase (testing) capacity continues.”

The county’s most recent seven-day average is about 83 new tests done per day, according to health department data.

Based on the county’s population and the state’s goal, the county should aim for an average of about 250 tests per day, Giese said this week.

What will a new countywide order say?

The health department isn’t anticipating making changes to rules for businesses in the next order, Giese said.

The order allows businesses, playgrounds, campgrounds and churches to open, with rules about social distancing, screening of guests and limits on occupancy.

Specifically, businesses must keep six feet between employees and customers except for brief contacts, limit customers to give 144 square feet of space per household unit, screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms and more.

Gathering in groups of more than 10 people — including festivals, concerts, sporting events and conferences — is still prohibited, except for religious gatherings, according to the current order.

The order’s ban on mass gatherings may loosen eventually. But don’t expect a green light to hold large graduation parties just yet.

The health department hasn’t set a date for large events to begin again in the Chippewa Valley, Giese said, calling the risk of transmitting the virus at those events “very high.”

“We do anticipate looking at our data to see if there’s ways to continue considering ways to open up the mass gathering options,” she said, but added that it likely won’t come next week. “Nothing is specific about a date … that makes it possible to say explicitly when we’re going to be able to hold events.”

The state is reporting 511 new cases of the virus as of Friday, for a total of 14,396. Statewide, 2,259 with the virus have been hospitalized, about 16% of total cases.

Six new deaths were recorded since Thursday. In total, 496 Wisconsin residents have died of the virus, according to the state DHS.

Eau Claire County will not hold a press briefing Monday due to the Memorial Day holiday, but will hold briefings at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.

The full Eau Claire County COVID-19 order can be found at www.eauclairewi.gov/Home/ShowDocument?id=32507 and at covid19eauclaire.org. The county’s COVID-19 hotline is 715-831-7425.

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