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Beaches low-risk if swimmers keep their distance, officials say

Beachgoers have a low risk of catching COVID-19 at public beaches and swimming areas in Eau Claire County this summer — as long as they stay at least 6 feet away from other household groups, county health officials have said this month.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department isn’t planning to make beachgoers follow specific beach-related guidelines, department director Lieske Giese said at a Monday news conference, as temperatures in Eau Claire topped 90 degrees in the afternoon.

But they’ll be asked to follow the countywide health order’s rules for socializing in groups: No more than 20 people at any given gathering, and household units must stay at least 6 feet apart. The restrictions are aimed at limiting the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

“As long as we see this disease not progressing rapidly, we’re hoping (beaches) continue to be a place that we can all enjoy this summer,” Giese said Monday.

There’s no evidence that COVID-19 can spread via water in pools, hot tubs or bodies of water, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, in pools, chlorine or bromine used to disinfect the water “should inactivate the virus,” the CDC said.

The risk of visiting the beach depends completely on how well family units can keep a distance from each other, Giese said Friday.

“Going to a place with lots of people close in contact, (where) physical distance can’t be maintained, that’s a concern,” she said.

Wearing cloth face masks isn’t required in the countywide order. The Health Department recommends people use them except while they’re in the water because “a face covering getting wet is not protective,” Giese said.

She warned beachgoers to watch children and be careful while tubing and boating, pointing to several instances in May and June when county rescue crews have retrieved people from local rivers.

As it does every summer, the Health Department is continuing to test the water quality of all county beaches and will close beaches temporarily if necessary, she said this month.

As of Monday, all six beaches — including Half Moon, Riverview, Lake Altoona, Big Falls, Lake Eau Claire and Coon Fork — were open, according to the county’s website.

Chippewa Valley beaches could see more visitors this summer, after the city of Eau Claire’s Friday announcement that the Fairfax Pool would be closed for repairs during the 2020 season.

Despite the public pool’s closure, kids are “still at a high risk of drowning even in less crowded backyard pools,” HSHS hospitals said in a news release Monday, urging children not to swim alone and parents to supervise closely.

The countywide COVID-19 order, which currently bars outdoor gatherings larger than 20 people and indoor gatherings larger than 10 people, is set to expire Thursday at midnight. The Health Department will likely release more details Wednesday about a new order that will continue on Friday, Giese said.

New cases

Five more cases of the virus were identified in Eau Claire County over the weekend, for a total of 124.

Eighteen of those 124 cases are active, with an estimated 106 having recovered, according to the county’s website.

Throughout Wisconsin, 203 new cases of the virus have been identified as of Monday, for a total of 21,038. The statewide rate of hospitalization for those with the virus is holding steady at 14%; 2,860 of Wisconsin’s roughly 21,000 cases have been hospitalized at any point, according to the state Department of Health Services.

No new deaths from the virus were recorded Monday in Wisconsin, the first day with no deaths since May 17.

In total, 646 Wisconsin residents have died of the virus, according to DHS.

The county’s COVID-19 hotline is 715-831-7425.

A farmer uses horse-drawn equipment to cut hay recently along Highway 27 north of Augusta. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Thousands mourn George Floyd in Texas amid calls for reform

HOUSTON — The last chance for the public to say goodbye to George Floyd drew thousands of mourners Monday to a church in Houston where he grew up, as his death two weeks ago continues to stoke protests in America and beyond over racial injustice, and spurred France to abruptly halt the use of police choke holds.

In a reflection of the weight of the moment, the service drew the families of black victims in other high-profile killings whose names have become seared in America’s conversation over race — among them Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin.

“It just hurts,” said Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, sobbing as he ticked off some of their names outside The Fountain of Praise church. “We will get justice. We will get it. We will not let this door close.”

Under a blazing Texas sun, mourners wearing T-shirts with Floyd’s picture or the words “I Can’t Breathe” — the phrase he said repeatedly while pinned down by a Minneapolis police officer — waited for hours to pay their respects as Floyd’s body, dressed in a brown suit, lay in an open gold-colored casket. Some sang “Lean on Me” and Houston’s police chief bumped fists and embraced others in line.

Some knew Floyd in the nearby housing projects where he grew up. Others traveled for hours or drove in from other states. Those who couldn’t make it whipped up their own tributes: In Los Angeles, a funeral-style procession of cars inched through downtown as the viewing began in Houston. In Tennessee, residents of Memphis held a moment of silence.

Bracy Burnett approached Floyd’s casket wearing a homemade denim face mask scrawled with “8:46” — the length of time prosecutors say Floyd, who was black, was pinned to the ground under a white officer’s knee before he died.

“All black people are not criminals. All white people are not racists. All cops are not bad. And ignorance comes in all colors. That’s what I thought about when I viewed the body,” Burnett, 66, said.

Floyd’s death on May 25 has inspired international protests and drawn new attention to the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. by police and the criminal justice system.

Hours into the viewing, a judge in Minneapolis kept bail at $1 million for Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death. Chauvin, 44, said almost nothing during the 11-minute hearing while appearing on closed-circuit television from a maximum-security prison.

Two weeks after Floyd’s death, the impact continued to resonate at home and abroad.

In Paris, France’s top security official said police would no longer permit choke holds that have been blamed for multiple cases of asphyxiation and have come under renewed criticism after Floyd’s death. And in Washington, Democrats in Congress proposed a sweeping overhaul of police oversight and procedures that would include a nationwide ban on choke holds in a potentially far-reaching legislative response to the mass protests denouncing the deaths of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

“With this happening to him, it’s going to make a difference in the world,” said Pam Robinson, who grew up with Floyd in Houston and handed out bottled water to mourners waiting outside the church. The punishing heat spiked above 90 degrees and got to dozens in line, including one person who was taken to a hospital. Dozens more were helped to a cooling tent.

Comill Adams said she drove more than seven hours from Oklahoma City with her family, including two children ages 8 and 10. They wore matching black T-shirts with “I Can’t Breathe” on the back — shirts she made up specially for the memorial.

“We had been watching the protests on TV. We’ve been at home feeling outraged. At times it brought us to tears,” Adams said. “The fact this one is causing change, we had to come be a part of it.”

Mourners were required to wear masks over fears of the coronavirus and stood 6 feet apart as they paused briefly to view the casket. On a stage behind the casket two identical murals showed Floyd wearing a black cap that read “Houston” and angel wings drawn behind him.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was among the first to view the casket, wearing a striped gold-and-crimson tie, the colors of Floyd’s Houston high school, where Floyd was a standout football player.

“George Floyd is going to change the arc of the future of the United States. George Floyd has not died in vain. His life will be a living legacy about the way that America and Texas responds to this tragedy,” Abbott said.

Floyd’s death has spurred calls for change nationwide.

The Minneapolis City Council has vowed to dismantle the city’s 800-member police agency. And in Washington, House and Senate Democrats held a moment of silence at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall before proposing legislative changes in policing oversight, reading Floyd’s name and those of others killed during police interactions and kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — now a symbol of police brutality.

Besides banning police choke holds, the Justice in Policing Act would limit legal protections for police and create a national database of excessive-force incidents, according to an early draft. It is the most ambitious change to law enforcement sought by Congress in years.

Meanwhile, officials nationwide are already taking steps to outlaw choke holds: California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s police training program to stop teaching them and Denver police announced Sunday they were banning them, effective immediately.

Floyd’s funeral will be Tuesday, followed by burial at the Houston Memorial Gardens cemetery in suburban Pearland, where he will be laid to rest next to his mother, Larcenia Floyd.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was to travel to Houston to meet with Floyd’s family and provide a video message for Floyd’s funeral service. Previous memorials have taken place in Minneapolis and Raeford, N.C., near where Floyd was born.

Cities imposed curfews as several protests last week were marred by spasms of arson, assaults and smash-and-grab raids on businesses. More than 10,000 people have been arrested around the country, according to reports tracked by The Associated Press.

But protests in recent days have been overwhelmingly peaceful — and over the weekend, several police departments appeared to retreat from aggressive tactics.

Several cities have lifted curfews, including Chicago and New York City, where the governor urged protesters to get tested for the coronavirus as concerns have been raised that demonstrations could lead to an increase in virus cases.

Floyd was raised in Houston’s Third Ward and moved to Minneapolis several years ago to seek work and a fresh start. His face now appears on a mural in his old neighborhood, and his name was chanted by tens of thousands last week at a protest and march in downtown Houston.

Petition calls for Eau Claire police body cameras in 2021

Residents petitioning the city to speed up its time frame for equipping Eau Claire police officers with body-worn cameras pleaded their case Monday night to the City Council.

Organizers said that 1,950 people so far have signed the petition that asks the city to buy the equipment next year, as opposed to plans to get them between 2022 and 2023.

“The time line for the body cameras should be moved up significantly,” Eau Claire resident Jennifer Goldbach told the council via teleconference.

Not only would the cameras be good for residents by creating more transparency in local law enforcement, but also as tools for police officer training and evidence in court cases, she said.

The request comes after several rallies on racial injustice have happened in Eau Claire in response to the May 25 death of Minneapolis man George Floyd. A Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while the man was on the ground and handcuffed. The officer and three others were fired and now face criminal charges. Protests and nationwide debates over policing policies and institutional racism were inspired by Floyd’s death.

Christina Funk said while other communities are talking about de-funding their police departments, that’s not the route she’s seeking for Eau Claire.

She’s urging that body cameras be part of a plan to enhance officer interactions and build community trust.

“Approving funds for this is only the first step,” she said.

The city has been planning to buy cameras for several years and documents from prior years show Eau Claire had expected to have them by now.

“The funds for this have been pushed out each year,” Funk said.

City officials initially had thought it would cost as little as $80,000 to buy cameras and put them into operation, but further research has pushed the estimate higher due to data storage needs and the price of technology.

A proposed five-year plan for Eau Claire city projects spending now shows $555,000 in 2022 and $250,000 in 2023 for upgrading the current squad car video cameras and the addition of body cameras for the police department.

That plan has not yet been finalized though, and the council is slated to discuss it after its regular meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Funk also advocated for a zero-tolerance policy to go with the body-worn cameras — forbidding officers from turning them off or obscuring their view intentionally.

She also is seeking some additional training for officers as well as research to determine what degree of institutional racism exists in Eau Claire’s public sector.

After talking with the police chief, Funk said she’s learned that local policies and training include active listening, de-escalation and crisis intervention. However, she said there’s no specific training in antiracism given to officers, which is something she’d want to see added.

Funk also wants to see Eau Claire analyze policing practices and the public education system to see how they are doing in terms of racial disparities.

“It would be naive of us to think we’re unaffected here in Eau Claire in our institutions,” she said.