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Ready and waiting: Some area bars reopen, but other establishments plan slower restart

For the first time in two months, diners buying lunch from Joel’s 4Corners were able to sit in the Chippewa Falls restaurant’s dining room instead of only getting their orders to-go.

The bar and grill opened for dine-in at 11 a.m. Thursday, making use of Wednesday’s state Supreme Court decision that brought an immediate end to Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order, which was scheduled to last until May 26.

Mindful of the health danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Joel’s 4Corners had fewer tables and chairs in its dining room, creating more space between diners to maintain a distance intended to reduce the spread of germs.

“We’re still set up with six feet of distancing in our dining room,” owner Joel Seidlitz said.

Those at the bar are asked to maintain a two barstool gap between them, if they’re not part of the same family or group. Salt and pepper shakers and condiment bottles are available upon request and wiped with sanitizer between each use. Hand sanitizer is set up at two spots in the bar and personal protective equipment is available to employees, though it is their prerogative to wear it.

“For our servers it’s their choice to wear masks,” Seidlitz said.

After its first lunch hour with dine-in customers, he said the crowd was about 20% of what he’d normally see on a weekday.

Being allowed to resume dine-in service was a relief to Seidlitz though, as he noted that food prices, especially beef and now fresh produce, have been going up in recent weeks. That put added stress on the business while it had stayed afloat with a skeleton crew fulfilling carry-out orders.

Numerous establishments in the Chippewa Valley reopened after state justices struck down the safer-at-home order, but other bars and restaurants were not yet ready to welcome customers back inside.

Rolly’s Coach Club, 2239 Spooner Ave., Altoona, was among the local taverns that opened Wednesday night following the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Owner Rolly Knusalla said he’d gotten a lot of phone calls after the ruling came down and then welcomed in customers, but it hadn’t been too busy.

In Chippewa Falls, Burly’s Bar owner Brian Krista waited until 1 p.m. Thursday to open as he had a few chores to do at his establishment at 19 E. Canal St. before it was ready to serve customers again.

The restaurant and bar at Lake Hallie Golf Club, 2196 110th St., needed an extra day before reopening its dining areas, starting service at 3 p.m. today. However, the restaurant noted it will limit its capacity by 50%, serving up to 50 people at a time with tables of no more than six people.

Among Eau Claire taverns caught off-guard by the Supreme Court’s Wednesday afternoon decision allowing businesses to reopen immediately was The Mousetrap Tavern, 311 S. Barstow St.

While the bar still had bottled beer and liquor stocked from when it was last open two months ago, the tap lines needed cleaning and fresh kegs of beer.

“A lot of things need to be done that I was preparing for on the 26th,” owner Joshua Prock said.

The bar announced Thursday evening that it will reopen today.

Hallie Bar & Grill, 1713 Highway OO, is planning to open as soon as possible, but didn’t have a date set as of Thursday morning.

Bar manager Mindye Snead said the business was waiting for more instructions from local health officials to guide its decision on reopening.

But employees were preparing for eventual opening by cleaning and making sure all supplies and procedures were in place to abide by recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to operate safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many restauranteurs were waiting for Thursday afternoon news conferences from local public health officials before pushing ahead with plans for reopening.

That was the situation for Dooley’s Pub manager Rebecca Lehner, who said the sports bar at 442 Water St. would also still need time to train employees on new safety measures related to COVID-19.

“We need to get more staff back and make sure everyone is prepared with all the protocols,” she said.

Like other restaurants, Dooley’s Pub has been keeping a portion of its employees busy preparing meals for carry out and delivery.

David Zempel, owner of The District Pub & Grill, 101 Graham Ave., posted an announcement Wednesday night to the downtown Eau Claire restaurant’s Facebook page.

“Although we’re VERY excited to open our doors, we have made the decision we will continue offering our delivery service and take out, but will not be opening our dining services until more guidance is given,” he wrote.

Zempel continued that he’s looking for direction from the local health department to make sure the business can reopen safely for the well-being of both customers and staff.

A group of Eau Claire restaurants and bars run by John Mogensen and Lisa Aspenson are opting to remain closed — except for take-out — until May 26 at the earliest.

Still viewing the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency, Aspenson said the continued closure is because there still isn’t enough testing available for COVID-19.

“We know that the virus is still here. Nothing has changed,” she said. “The safety of our staff, families and community is really the most important thing.”

Though the Eau Claire area has a relatively low number of reported cases, Aspenson said she’s seen reports of other areas that reopened and then had to close because of an increase in coronavirus.

While most employees from Mona Lisa’s, Mogie’s Pub, The Livery, Stella Blues, Stones Throw and The Red Room are currently not working, they are getting paid through the Paycheck Protection Program funded through the CARES Act.

“We’re able to pay our staff and we’re extremely grateful for that,” Aspenson said, adding that employees are the most important part of running the businesses.

Joanne Palzkill met Thursday morning with employees of her Altoona restaurants, Za51, 1476 Blazing Star Blvd., and Draganetti’s, 3120 E. Clairemont Ave., to talk about reopening their dining rooms.

“What we have decided to do is continue to offer the limited services at least through this weekend,” she said.

That means continuing the limited hours for take-out and delivery orders from the restaurants, which has been done with a small staff during the past two months. To fully open will require calling up employees to start scheduling them for shifts, if they are able to work while schools remain closed.

“Some people have children at home, so that may affect their ability to work,” she said.

Reopening also means stocking up on groceries and putting new precautions in place to protect employees and customers from spreading germs.

“It’s not as simple as turning a switch on,” she said.

Palzkill, who currently is board chairwoman of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, noted the trade group has been giving advice on measures businesses should take.

The association noted there was no restriction on capacity set by the state, but advised restaurants to keep six feet of distance between tables and seat no more than six people at a table.

“Keep in mind that if restaurants and bars in your area do not do a good job with implementing reopening best practices, local health departments will likely take action to impose stay at home closures for your area,” the association wrote Thursday on its website. “It takes just a couple of bad examples to drive public concern.”

Investigation: Former UW-EC official did not violate policy

A UW Shared Services investigation into a gender discrimination complaint filed against a UW-Eau Claire vice chancellor found insufficient evidence that he violated the university’s sexual violence and sexual harassment policy or bullied employees.

A former UW-Eau Claire employee filed the complaint Feb. 3 against Albert Colom, UW-Eau Claire vice chancellor of enrollment. Colom announced his resignation Feb. 24 and will stay on as a salaried employee until September. His yearly salary is $188,426.

Angie Swenson-Holzinger, a former associate director of advising, filed a formal complaint against Colom on Feb. 3, Swenson-Holzinger’s last day as a university employee. Swenson-Holzinger’s complaint described a culture of fear and bullying that led to a toxic work environment under Colom’s leadership.

In a memo Thursday, Teresa O’Halloran, UW-Eau Claire affirmative action officer and Title IX coordinator, said she reviewed the report and dismissed the matter according to UW-Eau Claire’s discrimination, harassment and retaliation policy. The dismissal can be appealed in writing within 15 days.

Swenson-Holzinger told the Leader-Telegram Thursday that she does not plan to appeal.

Two investigators led the investigation for Shared Services, which is part of the UW System, and sent an eight-page report Wednesday to UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James. The report includes information based on interviews with current and former UW-Eau Claire employees, and documents and submissions regarding Colom’s reputation and character.

“Colom may have created challenging work environments for the employees that he supervised,” the report reads. “But the information gathered does not show that Colom bullied his direct reports. The evidence also shows that Colom could have communicated better with his direct reports to make it easier for them to work with him; however, we find that his weaknesses as a communicator are not grounds for finding that Colom was a bully.”

Schmidt shared the report’s findings with university members Thursday and released a statement.

“As Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, it is my responsibility to be a steward of this institution’s most valued assets — our employees, our faculty and our students,” the statement read in part. “My administration and I are deeply committed to the ideals of an equitable, inclusive and diverse workplace where all employees are treated with respect and dignity. We will continue to nurture our campus culture of caring and respect.”

Shared Services investigators interviewed Colom, Swenson-Holzinger and several current and former UW-Eau Claire employees, including Schmidt and Heather Kretz, former director of admissions. Kretz was one of five UW-Eau Claire admissions staffers who resigned in January 2019 because of what they deemed a toxic workplace led by Colom. According to the former staff members, Colom led a divisive culture of fear and bullying that valued personal loyalty above all else, outwardly praising coworkers but humiliating them behind closed doors.

Colom’s position was created in fall 2018 following comprehensive restructuring undertaken by university leadership to better meet long-term recruitment and retention challenges. He oversaw several divisions, including admissions, the advising, retention and career center, athletics, Blugold Central, recreation and sport operations and housing and residence life.

The report includes summaries of interviews with several staff members, including Billy Felz, special assistant to vice chancellor Colom.

“According to Felz, Colom liked to move fast, to make changes quickly,” the report states. “Colom frequently changed his mind. In contrast, Swenson-Holzinger was cautious when changing how students were advised. Swenson-Holzinger was careful, methodical, and contemplative; Colom was not.”

During an interview with Staci Heidtke, associate director of Career Services and current interim director of Advising and Career Services, “Heidtke stated that Colom treated her and Swenson-Holzinger differently,” the report states. “Colom had reasonable expectations for Heidtke but not always for Swenson-Holzinger.

For example, Colom wanted Swenson-Holzinger to think of more efficient ways to supervise her 30 direct reports so she would be available when he needed her to do something. Heidtke said that one of Colom’s strengths was that he was willing to be an agent of change (and he wanted directors to understand his ideas). A weakness was that Colom sometimes spoke without thinking.”

The report mentions the inability of Colom and Swenson-Holzinger to have productive conversations.

“Given their different perceptions, Colom should have tried to communicate better,” it reads. “Moreover, Colom should have disclosed his inability to connect with Swenson-Holzinger so that he could have been provided with counseling on how to better communicate with her and with the other employees who thought that Colom discouraged them from providing him with feedback.”

Investigators concluded that Colom led a challenging work environment but his behavior did not violate university or system policy.

“The evidence gathered in this investigation showed that several women supervised by Colom liked the way that he encouraged them to be creative; to make needed changes; and to think outside the box,” the report states. “The information gathered also showed that some of Colom’s direct reports (both women and men) had negative experiences with Colom similar to Swenson-Holzinger’s experiences … With respect to Swenson-Holzinger’s allegation that at a minimum Colom created ‘negative work environments,’ the investigators recognize that because of his management style, Colom created a challenging work environment for the employees that he supervised. But his creation of challenging work environments is not evidence of conduct for which he should have been sanctioned.”

Swenson-Holzinger expressed disappointment in the results of the investigation but said she “didn’t expect anything different, unfortunately.”

Regardless of the outcome, Swenson-Holzinger felt confident in her decision to file a complaint.

“I spoke up when I needed to,” Swenson-Holzinger said. “I sleep well at night knowing I did that.”

In the past few months, Swenson-Holzinger said she has heard from some of Colom’s former coworkers at other universities thanking her for speaking out. She said some current UW-Eau Claire employees have contacted her, saying the campus atmosphere improved after Colom resigned and began working remotely.

Swenson-Holzinger hopes her decision showed that employees can voice concerns, but she said UW-Eau Claire must better address how to build a culture where people can speak out freely without fear of retribution.

“The fact that this behavior was allowed to go on … and really the only change that took place was when the media took hold of the story, is really concerning,” Swenson-Holzinger said.

In his statement Thursday, Schmidt said he looks forward to working with Warren Anderson, vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and Student Affairs, “to develop a long-term plan to help improve campus climate as part of his overall task force work.”

EC County issues new ‘control and prevention’ order, businesses can open with limits

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.