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Oakwood Mall to open Wednesday; three anchors already back in business

Two months after temporarily closing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oakwood Mall will reopen for business on Wednesday.

Things will look and feel different when the Chippewa Valley’s largest retail entity reopens, with plentiful hand-sanitizing stations, social distancing directions, touch-free interactions and frequent and intense cleanings, the mall said Monday in a statement.

“We are working diligently to provide a safe, clean environment where people feel comfortable shopping, dining and enjoying their time,” the statement said.

The mall, which will resume operations with reduced hours, will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.

“The safety and well-being of our retail partners and shoppers is of the utmost importance,” Oakwood Mall general manager Betsy Maher said. “As Oakwood Mall prepares for this ‘new normal,’ we are thankful for the opportunity to reopen our doors and look forward to welcoming guests back into the shopping center.”

Commerce already has returned to the shopping center, as three of its four anchor stores are once again welcoming customers.

That includes HOM Furniture, which opened May 2 at its new location in the 105,255-square-foot former Younkers store on the east end of Oakwood Mall. HOM previously operated a store at 2921 Mall Drive.

Hobby Lobby, which is located at the opposite end of the mall, reopened Saturday, and Scheels has been open for a few weeks after a hiatus of about four weeks.

All of the anchors are taking steps to limit the volume of customers in the stores at one time.

As for HOM, which closed for new coronavirus concerns in late March within a day of when its new store originally was scheduled to open, CEO Rod Johansen expressed confidence that customers will enjoy a safe shopping experience.

“Our store is good-sized, so there’s plenty of room for people to roam,” Johansen said. “We’re probably one of the safest places you can go.”

While walk-in customers are welcome, the furniture retailer also has begun offering personal appointments with sales representatives at the store, on the phone and online to help control the amount of traffic on the sales floor.

“We’re trying to meet people’s needs and make it a lot easier for customers to do business with us, and that’s been very well received,” Johansen said.

The store also has enhanced its cleaning standards, made hand sanitizer available around the sales floor and required all employees to wear face masks among other steps to ensure a safe environment.

“I think everybody can’t wait for the day when we can go back and start doing things the way we used to,” Johansen said. “We’d just as soon have our staff looking at customers with their smiling faces instead of from behind a mask.”

While mall traffic isn’t essential to HOM’s success, he said he looks forward to the rest of the mall opening so more Chippewa Valley residents will get a glimpse of the new store’s contemporary design and realize it is open.

Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said Monday that the local order that took effect after the state Supreme Court last week struck down the extension of Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order is the same for all businesses in Eau Claire County except those with prolonged close contact with clients.

“We are working as questions come in and working proactively to get information out to all operators of retail and other stores to make sure they understand the order and have the resources needed to open,” Giese said. “Places like Oakwood Mall and other retail operations not yet open have definitely been in contact with us, and we’re working with them on best practices and advice.”

The Health Department, which Giese said is allowing businesses to pursue creative solutions for following the order, has indicated the intent of the order is to provide a framework in which businesses can be open and community members can resume some normal activities, while protecting the community from the spread of the virus.

Among other restrictions, the local order mandates that businesses comply with physical distancing requirements of 6 feet between all individuals on the premises unless they are from the same household, allot 144 square feet of space per household unit and restrict the number of on-site workers to no more than necessary to perform operations.

As directed in the local order, retail and dining tenants that choose to open at Oakwood Mall will be expected to follow the guidelines published by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the mall said in the statement. The most up-to-date list of open retailers and restaurants at Oakwood will be available on the mall’s website at www.oakwoodmall.com.

Hobby Lobby has reduced its store hours to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with the first hour of each day reserved for elderly and high-risk shoppers.

The store also has designated separate entrance and exit doors to limit contact among customers, ramped up cleaning protocols and set a limit of 208 customers in the store at one time, said store manager Mandy Green.

Hobby Lobby is operating at a reduced staffing level and will bring back more employees as sales return to normal, Green said.

Meanwhile, Best Buy, which early in the COVID-19 crisis offered curbside pickup, recently added shopping by personal appointment, with a limit of five customers permitted in the store at one time.

Several other major retailers in Eau Claire, including Kohl’s, T.J. Maxx and JCPenney, remain closed.

Reporter Sarah Seifert contributed to this story.


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UW-EC professor tapped to fill open school board seat

Marquell Johnson, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of kinesiology and director of rehabilitation science, has been chosen to fill the first of two open seats on the Eau Claire school board.

The school board voted at a virtual meeting Monday to appoint Johnson to a board seat, which was vacated by Laurie Klinkhammer and extends through April 2021.

Johnson said Monday he will advocate for accessibility and diversity in the district’s policies, and for Eau Claire students with disabilities.

Many of Johnson’s friends and acquaintances are proud of the school district, and “I’d like to serve on the board to ensure these experiences continue, not only for my children but all children the district serves,” he said Monday.

Students of color, who make up about 24% of the district’s enrollment, need representation from school leaders and administrators, said Johnson, who is black.

Johnson has been a member of the school district’s post-secondary advisory committee and director of western Wisconsin disability recreational programs P.R.I.D.E. and P.R.I.D.E.4Adults, according to his resume.

His children attend Manz Elementary School and South Middle School.

Out of a field of 13 applicants, Johnson received a majority of votes Monday night. His duties will officially begin Wednesday.

Board members Eric Torres, Lori Bica, Phil Lyons and Tim Nordin voted for Johnson. Aaron Harder voted for St. Edward’s Montessori School teacher Erica Zerr, and Joshua Clements voted for Mayo Clinic Health System nursing education specialist Amy Olson.

Applications for former board President Eric Torres’ seat are also open. The district is accepting applications through 4 p.m. May 27. An application is available online at tinyurl.com/ycfyt3em. People can request a paper copy by calling 715-852-3002.

Candidates must deliver a maximum three-minute statement at a 7 p.m. June 1 school board meeting, where the board will also choose a final candidate. The new member will serve out the rest of Torres’ term, which ends in April 2021.

In other school district news:

  • On Monday the board began discussing reopening classrooms for students in the fall, and the safety, financial and staffing impacts on the district. Three options are being explored: Reopen with all face-to-face learning in the fall, reopen with 100% virtual learning, or take a hybrid approach. A task force is forming to tackle the issue, made up of administrators, staff members, principals and representatives from elementary, middle and high schools. Discussions continued past the Leader-Telegram’s press time Monday night; visit leadertelegram.com and the Leader-Telegram’s Wednesday issue for more information.
  • DeLong Middle School’s new principal will be Michelle Wiberg, who is taking over the role from her current position as assistant principal. Longtime DeLong principal Tim O’Reilly is set to retire June 30. Wiberg has taught with the district since 1995 and has been assistant superintendent at DeLong since 2001, Hardebeck said.
  • The board voted unanimously to give 12-month employees, including custodians, administrators and others, three different options for using excess vacation time. The coronavirus-related school closures have made it difficult for some staffers to take vacation time this spring, including custodians, IT employees, administrators and others, said executive director of business services Abby Johnson. Those employees will be able to convert their unused vacation time to sick days for the 2020-21 school year, convert half to sick days and receive a payout for the other half, or have the district pay out all vacation days forfeited after July 1.
  • People who wish to give schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck a goodbye message before she retires from the district at the end of June can send a card, note or well wish to ECASD—Superintendent Celebration, 500 Main St., Eau Claire, WI 54701 by June 1, the district said in a news release. The messages will be in lieu of an in-person celebration. Hardebeck is retiring from the district after almost eight years; new superintendent Michael Johnson, assistant superintendent of South Washington County schools, will take over the role in July.
  • The next school board meeting is slated for June 1.

Covid-19
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Hair salons, one-on-one services must use masks, limit clients in new EC County order

Employees of hair salons, barbershops, nail salons and other one-on-one service businesses in Eau Claire County will be required to wear masks, limit their number of clients and follow other requirements as they reopen, the Eau Claire City-County Health Department said in a new order Monday.

The new order mandates new requirements for one-on-one, personal services “that by their very nature cannot maintain six-foot physical distancing,” the Health Department order states.

The new requirements in Monday’s order don’t impact restaurants, retailers or other businesses that don’t require employees to have prolonged, up-close contact with other people.

However, all businesses in Eau Claire County must still adhere to the social distancing, masking and client screening requirements set in the county’s original order, issued Thursday.

“In a place where there’s going to be a longer contact, have physical distance,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Health Department, at a news conference Monday.

“A simple example in a restaurant is standing a distance away when taking orders, if their order takes any amount of time. Delivering food to the table can happen very quickly.”

Under the new order that applies to one-on-one service providers:

  • Providers that have prolonged close contact with customers (within six feet) must only see 10 or fewer clients per day.
  • Providers have to wear cloth face coverings at all times when they’re in close contact with customers, and the Health Department is recommending the use of face shields.
  • Clients must wear face coverings “when feasible based on the service being performed.”
  • Workers must take their clients’ full names, addresses and phone numbers to help with contact tracing.
  • Inside a business, the number of clients must be limited; every client or household unit must have six feet of physical distance and 144 square feet of space.
  • Work stations must be at least six feet apart.
  • Workers must sanitize chairs, equipment and tools between clients.
  • Walk-in services are prohibited, and appointments must be scheduled in advance.
  • Clients must wait in vehicles, or outside with six feet of physical distance. Waiting areas must be closed.
  • Businesses must review symptoms of COVID-19 with their staff and clients every day. If an employee is experiencing symptoms they must be sent home; if a client is showing symptoms, they should be declined service and recommended to get tested.

The new requirements only apply to “a small percentage of businesses that can’t supply services” from a distance of six feet, Giese said: “I think we all understand what those are: Personal service businesses that don’t have another choice.”

With the new order, there’s a lower risk of getting infected with the coronavirus by visiting businesses, but “it does not eliminate risk entirely,” Giese said.

“If someone chooses to get a one-on-one personal service … there’s risk to both that service provider and to the individual undertaking that service,” Giese said.

The chance of having to enter mandatory quarantine also goes up with one-on-one businesses. If a worker giving prolonged one-on-one service tests positive for COVID-19, anyone who received service from that person in a certain timeframe will also have to quarantine at home for 14 days, Giese said.

The same is true for customers: If they test positive, any one-on-one service provider they’ve visited will also have to enter mandated quarantine.

People at higher risk for complications of COVID-19 — including the elderly, immunocompromised and people with some chronic medical conditions — are being encouraged to stay away from those one-on-one services for right now, Giese said.

The county’s original COVID-19 order, which went into effect Thursday, is still in place. It allows all businesses, public spaces, playgrounds and campgrounds to open if they meet several requirements on social distancing, screening and numbers of guests. Those requirements include, among other rules: People must be six feet apart except for brief contacts (not including household units), and businesses must allow 144 square feet per household unit and keep only the number of employees who are strictly necessary for operations.

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

Law enforcement and Health Department staff have already responded to several complaints over the county’s COVID-19 order, Giese said, but instead of enforcing the order with a citation or documentation, those businesses and people were given information.

“We’re counting on businesses doing this right,” Giese said. “We don’t have capacity to send a public health team out to review practices at every single facility we have, both those at personal service facilities and those that are not. We’re counting on people ... calling with questions where they can’t figure out how to do it quite right.”

People with concerns can call the county’s COVID-19 hotline, 715-831-7425.

Increase in county cases

Eau Claire County has found nine new cases of the virus since Friday, 76 in total. Countywide 3,802 tests have been done, with 213 tests done since Friday, Giese said.

As of last Wednesday, 40 county residents who had COVID-19 are released from isolation.

The Health Department will likely begin releasing the ages of county residents who have been infected with the virus as cases increase, Giese said.

The state is reporting 144 new cases of the virus as of Monday, for a total of 12,687. Statewide, 2,068 with the virus have been hospitalized and 459 have died, an increase of six deaths since Sunday, according to the state Department of Health Services.