You have permission to edit this page.
A1 A1
centerpiece featured
PPP helps Chippewa Valley businesses stay afloat during pandemic

Thousands of Chippewa Valley businesses received loans as part of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

The U.S. Small Business Administration last week released the names of businesses that received PPP loans of more than $150,000.

The program was set up to blunt the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, PPP loans were intended to help minimize layoffs resulting from the loss of business associated with efforts to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

“The PPP is providing much-needed relief to millions of American small businesses, supporting more than 51 million jobs and over 80% of all small-business employees, who are the drivers of economic growth in our country,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a news release.

In Wisconsin, the program made 85,461 PPP loans totaling nearly $9.9 billion and supporting 1 million jobs, the SBA reported.

The loans can become grants if borrowers use the proceeds mostly to pay workers — with some spending allowed for rent, mortgage payments and overhead costs.

Recipients in the Chippewa Valley ranged from manufacturers and medical providers to nonprofits and retailers.

“We probably helped a couple hundred local businesses, mainly smaller ones, apply,” said Luke Kempen, director of the Small Business Development Center at UW-Eau Claire. “The PPP program allowed them to get the funding that they needed to continue on and keep people on the payroll so that when the economy opens up they are ready to go back to work.”

Kempen said the funding was critical, especially for smaller businesses that don’t have the reserves or access to lines of credit to help them survive a sustained economic downturn.

The federal government didn’t disclose exact loan amounts but only ranges for recipients of more than $150,000. An analysis by the Wisconsin Bankers Association shows that 12,355 Wisconsin companies received funding of more than $150,000, collecting a total of $7.3 billion, or 74% of the state’s PPP funding. Eau Claire ranked No. 7 among Wisconsin cities with 199 PPP loans.

More than 73,000 companies statewide received PPP loans of less than $150,000, the WBA study indicated.

The public may never know the identity of more than 80% of the nearly 5 million beneficiaries to date nationwide because the Trump administration has refused to release details on loans under $150,000. That secrecy spurred an open-records lawsuit by a group of news organizations, including The Associated Press.

The three largest recipients in the Chippewa Valley fell into the category of having received loans valued at between $5 million and $10 million. Those companies are Ayres Associates, Market & Johnson and Northland Restaurant Group, all of Eau Claire and all involved in business sectors hit hard by the pandemic.

Ayres, an engineering and architectural services firm with operations in four states, used the money primarily for salaries and benefits, said company president Bruce Ommen.

“This aid was vital to our company and our employees,” Ommen said. “With some of our projects being canceled nationwide, this aid provided some certainty to our roughly 300 employee owners.”

The bottom line, he added, is that the PPP loan allowed Ayres to endure market interruptions without making drastic employee cutbacks. As a result, the company has been able to keep employment at about the same level as before the onset of the virus.

“PPP really helped us retain our staff so we’re ready when our clients give us notice they are ready to restart their projects,” Ommen said.

The story is similar for contractor Market & Johnson, which had a number of contracts canceled or delayed when clients lost sales or tax revenue as a result of the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19.

“I’ve been in this business for 33 years and gone through a couple up and downs and recessions, but this one is so unpredictable,” said Jerry Shea, president of Market & Johnson. “Saying it’s unprecedented is an understatement.”

In such an environment, having access to the PPP funds has been “extremely helpful,” Shea said, expressing gratitude that Democrats and Republicans were able to come together to hurriedly create the emergency funding program in March.

“It just helps give us some financial certainty as we do our planning going forward,” Shea said. “It’s nice to have that opportunity extended to us.”

Still, Market & Johnson’s revenue is down about 21% and its employment trimmed from about 475 a year ago to 370 today, and Shea doesn’t believe the construction industry has seen the bottom of the slump yet.

“When our clients are under stress, we’re under stress,” he said.

The company has kept workers busy on school projects around the region as well as its just-completed work transforming the former Syverson Lutheran Home into The Guild, an upscale apartment complex in downtown Eau Claire, but the backlog of projects is smaller than usual.

“I really don’t know where things are going to end up,” Shea said.

Representatives of Northland Restaurant Group and several other area companies that received loans totaling more than $1 million did not return messages seeking comment.

Grace Lutheran Communities CEO Raymond Weiss issued the following statement regarding the Eau Claire-based organization’s PPP loan valued at $2 million to $5 million: “As a nonprofit community organization we are grateful for the PPP funding as our operational costs to provide safe and healthy care conditions for our residents and staff has skyrocketed primarily due to the required PPE for our employees and regulatory guidelines we follow due to COVID-19. With this funding, we have invested in our employees, effectively keeping jobs in our community and securing our capacity to provide care for its people.”

In Chippewa Valley communities with ZIP codes beginning with 547, an area that includes Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Menomonie and Altoona, 4,255 companies received PPP loans, according to an analysis by the Small Business Development Center. About 88% of those, or 3,756 businesses, received a total $117.8 million in increments of less than $150,000.

The PPP, the centerpiece of the federal government’s plan to rescue an economy devastated by shutdowns and uncertainty, has been both popular and controversial.

Under the PPP, the government is backing $659 billion in low-interest loans written by banks. Taxpayer money will pay off the loans if borrowers use them for approved expenses. Companies typically must have fewer than 500 workers to qualify.

Demand was so great that a first infusion of $349 billion ran out in two weeks. Many Main Street businesses couldn’t navigate the application process rapidly enough to get one of those first loans before funding dried up. Meanwhile, several hundred companies traded on stock exchanges — hardly the image of a small business — received loans maxing out at $10 million each, causing a public backlash and leading dozens to return the money.

While the program has undoubtedly helped many western Wisconsin small businesses avoid layoffs, congressional Democrats have been frustrated trying to get data about about the program from the administration, said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse.

“We were legislating at the speed of light trying to avoid a collapse of the economy, and now we need full disclosure in case there are areas we need to tighten up or change,” Kind said.

The controversies, along with fluctuating rules, created anxiety among some Chippewa Valley small-business owners who worried that the government might seek repayment for some unanticipated reason down the road, Kempen said.

Congress added $310 billion to the program, but confusing, shifting and sometimes restrictive rules cooled interest. About $140 billion was unclaimed as the application deadline closed June 30. With money still available, Congress voted to extend the program just as it was expiring, setting a new deadline of Aug. 8.

“While the pandemic has greatly impacted our economy, in the true spirit of entrepreneurship, small businesses have shown they are resilient and stronger,” SBA Great Lakes regional administrator Rob Scott said in a news release. “With the Paycheck Protection Program Extension Act they now have an additional month to apply for and benefit from this forgivable loan program, giving them the financial relief they need to weather the pandemic and their employees some additional peace of mind that they will continue to get paid.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Coronavirus deaths take a long-expected turn for the worse

NEW YORK — A long-expected upturn in U.S. coronavirus deaths has begun, driven by fatalities in states in the South and West, according to data on the pandemic.

The number of deaths per day from the virus had been falling for months, and even remained down as states like Florida and Texas saw explosions in cases and hospitalizations — and reported daily U.S. infections broke records several times in recent days.

Scientists warned it wouldn’t last. A coronavirus death, when it occurs, typically comes several weeks after a person is first infected. And experts predicted states that saw increases in cases and hospitalizations would, at some point, see deaths rise too. Now that’s happening.

“It’s consistently picking up. And it’s picking up at the time you’d expect it to,” said William Hanage, a Harvard University infectious diseases researcher.

According to an Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day rolling average for daily reported deaths in the U.S. has increased from 578 two weeks ago to 664 on July 10 — still well below the heights hit in April. Daily reported deaths increased in 27 states over that time period, but the majority of those states are averaging under 15 new deaths per day. A smaller group of states has been driving the nationwide increase in deaths.

California is averaging 91 reported deaths per day while Texas is close behind with 66, but Florida, Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and South Carolina also saw sizable rises. New Jersey’s recent jump is thought to be partially attributable to its less frequent reporting of probable deaths.

The impact has already been felt by families who lost kin — and by the health care workers who tried to save them.

Rublas Ruiz, a Miami intensive care unit nurse, recently broke down in tears during a birthday dinner with his wife and daughter. He said he was overcome by the number of patients who have died in his care.

“I counted like 10 patients in less than four days in our ICU and then I stopped doing that because there were so many,” said the 41-year-old nurse at Kendall Regional Medical Center who lost another patient Monday.

The virus has killed more than 130,000 people in the U.S. and more than a half-million worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be higher.

Deaths first began mounting in the U.S. in March. About two dozen deaths were being reported daily in the middle of that month. By late in the month, hundreds were being reported each day, and in April thousands. Most happened in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the Northeast.

Deaths were so high there because it was a new virus tearing through a densely populated area, and it quickly swept through vulnerable groups of people in nursing homes and other places, said Perry Halkitis, the dean of the Rutgers University School of Public Health in New Jersey.

Many of the infections occurred before government officials imposed stay-at-home orders and other social-distancing measures. The daily death toll started falling in mid-April — and continued to fall until about a week ago.

Researchers now expect deaths to rise for at least some weeks, but some think the count probably will not go up as dramatically as it did in the spring — for several reasons.

First, testing was extremely limited early in the pandemic, and it’s become clear that unrecognized infections were spreading on subways, in nursing homes and in other public places before anyone knew exactly what was going on. Now testing is more widespread, and the magnitude of outbreaks is becoming better understood.

Second, many people’s health behaviors have changed, with mask-wearing becoming more common in some places. Although there is no vaccine yet, hospitals are also getting better at treating patients.

Another factor, tragically, is that deadly new viruses often tear through vulnerable populations first, such as the elderly and people already weakened by other heath conditions. That means that, in the Northeast at least, “many of the vulnerable people have already died,” Halkitis said.

Now, the U.S. is likely in for “a much longer, slower burn,” Hanage, the Harvard researcher, said. “We’re not going to see as many deaths (as in the spring). But we’re going to see a total number of deaths, which is going to be large.”

In Houston, Gregory Compean, who owns the Compean Funeral Home, is already seeing the effects. He says it’s odd when he receives a call for someone who didn’t die from the coronavirus.

Families these days, he says, aren’t pushing back on restrictions placed on services.

“Their eyes are wide open, and they’re afraid,” he said. “They’re wanting to cooperate, and I think everyone is concerned at this point because the numbers are going through the roof.”

Kristin Urquiza is worried things may get dramatically worse soon, in at least some cities. Like Phoenix, where her 65-year-old father died recently.

When the dangers of the virus first became known, Mark Anthony Urquiza, a quality assurance inspector, took precautions such as wearing a face mask and staying home as much as possible, his daughter said.

But that changed after Gov. Doug Ducey ended Arizona’s stay-at-home order on May 15, eased restrictions on businesses, and initially blocked local lawmakers from requiring residents to wear masks.

By June 11, the elder Urquiza had developed a fever and cough. He was hospitalized and eventually placed on a ventilator. He died June 30.

“His life was robbed. I believe that terrible leadership and flawed policies put my father’s life in the balance,” Kristin Urquiza said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Ducey, a Republican, has more recently changed direction, closing many businesses and allowing mayors to make mask-wearing mandatory.

But Kristin Urquiza is worried. Her father received the care at a time when beds in intensive care units were readily available. Now some Arizona hospitals ICUs are becoming swamped.

“Other families are not going to be reassured the hospitals will have the capacity to give (coronavirus) victims the dignity and the health care that they deserve. And that breaks my heart,” she said.

Advocates are calling for mass COVID-19 testing in the Eau Claire County Jail

Several Chippewa Valley criminal justice advocates are calling for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department to test every inmate and staffer in the county jail, after a June announcement that five people in the jail had tested positive for COVID-19.

But health officials contend that one-time mass testing wouldn’t be useful, saying they’ll take the lead of the state.

A few other counties in Wisconsin have announced they’ll test everyone inside their jails after discovering cases — including Trempealeau County, which did mass testing in its jail after one inmate tested positive for the coronavirus. Eau Claire County hasn’t done the same.

Susan Wolfgram, UW-Stout emeritus professor and criminal justice advocate, questioned why Eau Claire County didn’t follow suit after the first five cases of the virus were found in people booked into the jail.

“The ultimate protection is getting a baseline, testing everyone,” Wolfgram said.

Wolfgram, Eau Claire County Supervisor Kimberley Cronk of District 28 and David Carlson, Rights For All regional organizer with ACLU of Wisconsin, in June called for the Health Department to order mass testing in the jail.

The department’s director and county’s chief health officer, Lieske Giese, has said the Health Department isn’t doing mass testing in the county jail right now, and will follow the state’s lead — adding that since the jail’s existing six cases were found during a mandatory 14-day quarantine, mass testing wouldn’t provide useful data.

“Where we’ve had someone come into the jail that ended up testing positive, all the appropriate practices were in place to make sure there were no close contacts to anyone ... which meant spread didn’t happen,” Giese said in July. “ … Testing is really just a point-in-time (measure). It doesn’t prevent disease from happening to the people that have it.”

Wolfgram, Carlson and Cronk described the situation as an “impasse,” in a June 26 letter to Giese, Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer, jail and health department officials and several county board supervisors.

The letter said: “We do not need to wait any longer for the State to add specific recommendations for COVID testing in county jails, not when Public Health directors have the authority to make their own common-sense protective decisions of their most vulnerable.”

All parties agree on one thing: The county jail is following CDC recommendations. The jail has cut the number of people in custody nearly in half and has increased inmates’ access to cleaning supplies, among other safety measures.

But the three advocates challenged the Health Department on how useful mass testing would be.

Wolfgram and Cronk say it would identify inmates and staffers who have the virus but are asymptomatic, and could stem a possible outbreak.

“They are doing everything the CDC recommends they do, but they’re not testing everyone, and they can,” Wolfgram said.

“Right now, doing one-time testing in the jail of inmates and staff really doesn’t tell us much,” Giese said. “Really, if we’re doing asymptomatic testing, we have to be regularly looking at testing.”

The proposal brings up questions about testing capacity, as the county slowly ramps up how many coronavirus tests it sends to labs each day.

Test capacity is a “considerable issue we’re exploring across the state,” and the county is working through “the balance between having the right people tested at the right time with the right resources,” Giese said in July.

Some counties pursue more testing

A few Wisconsin counties have forged ahead, testing en masse earlier this spring.

Wisconsin jails have routinely found new cases of the virus via mass testing — and at least in one case, a significant portion of inmates’ tests came back positive.

When the Dane County Sheriff’s Office tested everyone in its agency, it found six new cases of the virus among jail inmates, the Wisconsin State Journal reported in April.

In Kenosha County, 13 jail staffers tested positive by April. Afterward, the National Guard conducted mass testing in the Kenosha County Detention Center and the pretrial jail, the Kenosha News reported, and found almost 20% of the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.

The Trempealeau County Jail tested all its inmates and staffers in May after someone who was booked into the jail tested positive. That person wasn’t in contact with the jail’s general population, the Trempealeau County Health Department said.

This spring, Wolfgram and other advocates tried to bring the National Guard to Eau Claire County to test in the jail, but “that didn’t go anywhere,” she said.

Any inmate or staffer at the county jail is tested if they show symptoms, Giese said: “That has been the longstanding state protocol.”

The state Department of Corrections said it would test all prisoners and staff for COVID-19 in Wisconsin’s 36 adult prisons, the Associated Press reported in June.

One new case at the jail

As of Friday, six inmates at the Eau Claire County Jail have tested positive for the coronavirus — one new case since mid-June. All six cases were found when people undergoing a mandatory 14-day quarantine before entering the jail showed symptoms of the virus.

The Health Department declined to say Friday if any jail employees had tested positive, citing medical privacy rules.

Health Department officials have repeatedly said the virus isn’t spreading within the jail’s general population, pointing to the mandatory 14-day quarantine. During that period, inmates stay in a single solid-walled cell with a solid door, for roughly 24 hours a day unless they’re showering, attending court appearances or meeting with attorneys, Lt. Dave Riewestahl of the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office’s security services division told the Leader-Telegram in June.

The idea is that if someone who’s booked into the jail has contracted the virus, they’ll start having symptoms within the two to 14 days the CDC says the virus takes to show itself.

But given the percentage of asymptomatic carriers — the CDC estimated in May that a third of people with COVID-19 infections didn’t show any symptoms — it’s possible someone who’s infected could enter the jail even while they have the virus, Wolfgram contends.

“On its face that makes absolutely no sense, when we know how many people are asymptomatic and how many people are traveling in and out having contact with each other,” Wolfgram said.

County officials have said they’re giving jail staffers protective equipment to wear.

Jail employees are “the group with the highest risk of bringing disease into the jail,” Giese said in July.

The jail provides masks, gloves and gowns to its staffers, and the level of PPE worn varies on the task they’re working on, Riewestahl said.

Some other people do enter and exit the jail. Attorneys from the public defender’s office have some face-to-face visits with inmates. The majority of other attorneys have “semi-contact visits,” Riewestahl said, where the risk of directly transmitting the virus is virtually cut down to zero by using a telephone to communicate through a glass window. Mental health staff and social workers also meet with inmates via video, he said.

A community member donated nearly 200 cloth masks for the jail’s incarcerated people to wear, “enough for every inmate if they wanted them,” Riewestahl said. Inmates are allowed to keep the masks, and can wash them when their jail block does laundry.

Wolfgram said she believes the possibility of quarantine is dissuading some inmates with mild symptoms from coming forward.

“Many of them do not want to report that they have symptoms, especially people with mental health issues,” Wolfgram said. “They do not report because they don’t want to go into solitary quarantine.”

The sheriff’s office is still reducing the number of people kept inside the jail. It reduced the number of inmates from 281 to 143 between March 1 and April 8, said Dan Bresina, Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office captain of security services, in April. That reduction has continued, with 144 people in custody earlier this week, Riewestahl said Friday.


Advocates say they want a similar level of concern about the virus’ spread in jails as nursing homes and congregate living sites.

The state Department of Health Services said this spring it would test every nursing home resident and staffer in the state by the end of May, aiming to identify asymptomatic infections early.

People and employees in group living situations need to be tested, even if they don’t have symptoms, the DHS said, saying that “in congregate living settings like nursing homes where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, moving beyond only symptom-based screening is unlikely to detect all cases.”

“I’m not understanding how it’s any different, especially with (the jail) being such a fluid place, people coming and going,” Cronk said. “Why that would be treated any differently, I’m not exactly understanding.”

Data also suggest a novel coronavirus outbreak in the Eau Claire County Jail would be more dangerous than an outbreak at a local business or work site — due to worse outcomes of the coronavirus for people of color.

Black people are overrepresented in the county’s coronavirus cases — and they’re about 20 times as overrepresented in the jail’s population. As of this week, the jail had 173 inmates, according to a county jail population tracker. Of those inmates, 21% were Black.

“I have never seen that percentage hit below 16%,” Carlson said.

Black people in Eau Claire County make up just 1% of the county’s total population, according to a 2019 census estimate.

Other data indicates people in jail tend to be at higher risk.

Incarcerated people have a higher prevalence of underlying conditions — 44%, compared to 31% in the general population — including high blood pressure, tuberculosis, asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to an April statement from three Wisconsin epidemiology professors.

County health officials didn’t rule out the possibility of mass testing, but have emphasized the Health Department will wait for direction from the state: Giese said at a July press conference that the state is developing “a broader testing strategy.”

“There may be value, as community spread starts happening at a higher level, to do some asymptomatic testing in some facilities,” she said. “It’s something we’re exploring as a state, and we hope to have the capacity as we move forward to be exploring that as an option.”

In interviews, Cronk and Carlson called for consistent, specific updates about the jail’s plan to deal with the virus. Cronk called the situation “disheartening and frustrating.”

“Jails are full of family members and loved ones and mothers and fathers and friends, so we have to have that same level of communication and updates that occur,” she said. “I think, during this time, it’s beneficial to overcommunicate.”