A line of vehicles waits March 23 in the Cameron Street parking lot of Mayo Clinic Health System for patient testing for COVID-19. People are asked not to show up at the drive-through testing site without being pre-screened over the telephone. 

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department on Thursday issued a coronavirus “prevention and control” order that immediately lets all businesses, facilities, playgrounds, campgrounds and churches open, but they’ll need to follow rules for social distancing, screening of guests and limits on occupancy.

The local order comes a day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide safer-at-home order.

In the order signed by Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, large gatherings are still limited to 10 people or less. But businesses can open with some limits:

  • All people on the premises, including employees and customers, must be six feet apart, “except for those contacts that are incidental and brief in nature.” (The rule doesn’t apply to people from the same household.)
  • Businesses must allow 144 square feet of space per household unit in a business, both inside and outside. Buildings can’t go over their occupancy limit.
  • Businesses must keep only the number of employees in the facility that is “strictly necessary to perform operations.”
  • Businesses must adopt policies to screen employees and customers for respiratory symptoms and if they’ve come into contact with someone with COVID-19. The health department isn’t requiring one specific screening method, but will advise businesses on how to do so, Giese said. Some businesses have signs on doors, and some are actively screening with temperature checks or a series of questions for customers.
  • Businesses must establish social distancing lines outside their facilities so people can stand at least six feet apart while waiting. Stores “should use alternatives to lines, including allowing customers to wait in their cars for a text message or phone call and scheduling pick-ups or entries to the store.”
  • Concerts, festivals, conferences, sporting events and other mass gatherings of over 10 people are still prohibited under the county order.
  • Religious gatherings, due to a “specific constitutional frame,” are not subject to the 10-person mass gathering limit in the order, Giese said. But they “will be expected to meet all the other requirements in the order related to physical distancing and space.”

The full Eau Claire County order can be found at www.eauclairewi.gov/Home/ShowDocument?id=32507 and at covid19eauclaire.org.

The order doesn’t set different guidelines for different types of businesses. It also doesn’t necessarily limit businesses to a set number of people at a time, but rather “it’s based on square footage,” Giese said.

“Each business will have to see in their space what is allowable,” Giese said. “All of those spaces obviously would be able to continue with their takeout service, where there’s not in- person opportunities for complying with the order, but those places that have indoor and outdoor public spaces will have to walk through the order. It is not business-specific, it is risk-associated.”

Local law enforcement have the ability to enforce the order, Giese said. People who violate the order may be given a citation.

“Our goal with this order is not to do citations, but to educate,” Giese said.

The county order also urges businesses to use technology to communicate, rather than holding in-person meetings. Businesses cannot solicit door-to-door, must increase cleaning and disinfection and must stop customer self-service of food or beverages.

The Eau Claire County order doesn’t order people to stop non-essential travel, like the statewide order did, but “strongly encourages” county residents to stay home, minimize out-of-county travel and keep social circles small.

People must still try to keep at least six feet from other people — other than their household unit — while in shared or outdoor spaces, the order states.

Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters spoke in support of the order at a Thursday news conference.

“There’s value in having reasonable rules that protect the health and safety of everyone in our community,” Peters said. “ … But let’s be frank, this will not work if you and your family don’t believe there’s a problem. But there is a serious problem, and it really is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when each of us are going to know someone who is sick, is disabled from or dies of COVID-19 … this is a community problem. It will require a communitywide solution with communitywide support.”

Two-week time frame

The order goes into effect Thursday and extends through 11:59 p.m. on May 28. It may be modified or extended, Giese said Thursday.

She hopes the state will issue a framework in upcoming days or weeks, and said the county’s two-week time frame would allow for the state legislature to come up with guidance.

“It’s a starting point,” Giese said. “It will be reevaluated very regularly … we are intending to look at it regularly based on the questions that are posed. We’re hopeful within that timeframe we’ll know more.”

More county residents will be infected with the coronavirus with the lifting of the statewide order, Giese said. She noted that local hospitals are “short of goals” for enough personal protective equipment, but said the local health care system is prepared to respond to more cases.

Both Giese and Peters on Thursday criticized the state Supreme Court’s overturning of the statewide order, saying it’s putting pressure on counties and health departments to create their own rulebooks on the fly.

“We know disease and death will continue to happen, and the ending of this order without a replacement creates an incredible challenge for our state,” Giese said.

Peters said: “We found ourselves in the middle of a worldwide pandemic without guidance from the state, and expectations that we deal with that at a local level without all those tools in our toolbox.”

The elderly and people with underlying health conditions “are urged to stay in their home or residence” except for medical care, according to the order.

People should also continue to wash or sanitize their hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, clean high-touch surfaces and not shake hands, Giese said.

The county has identified two additional cases of the virus as of Thursday, bringing its total to 65. Of those 65 cases, 40 people have been released from isolation. A total of 3,468 people have been tested for the virus in the county so far, an increase of 263 tests since Wednesday.

The county health department expects to report today the final results from a Sunday-Monday testing blitz by the Wisconsin National Guard in Eau Claire.

Statewide, the virus has killed 434 and sickened 11,275. An additional 373 cases statewide have been identified since Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Questions about the order should be directed to the Eau Claire health department’s COVID-19 hotline, 715-831-7425.

The cities of Eau Claire and Altoona also collaborated on the countywide order.