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Many gyms reopening with limitations

After more than two months, many local gyms reopened this week with safety precautions in place.

The largest of those is the YMCA of the Chippewa Valley, which instituted a phased reopening over the course of three days this week. The John and Fay Menard YMCA Tennis Center opened Monday, the Chippewa Falls YMCA did on Tuesday and the Eau Claire YMCA opens its doors today. The L.E. Phillips YMCA Indoor Sports Center offers emergency child care service but remains closed to everything else.

A ruling last week by the Wisconsin Supreme Court eliminated Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order. For gyms, that decision expedited their reopening plans. An Eau Claire County order allows businesses and facilities to operate if they meet public health standards. Gyms must implement many health precautions, including physical distancing, face masks for employees, hand washing and frequent sanitizing and cleaning of equipment and surfaces.

According to Theresa Hillis, CEO at YMCA of the Chippewa Valley, the entity had discussions with the YMCA of the USA, Eau Claire City-County Health Department, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before deciding to partially reopen.

“We think it’s time, and we think we’re able to come out and say we’re doing it safely now,” Hillis said.

In Phase 1 of its reopening, the YMCA instituted reduced hours, capacity restriction, physical distancing guidelines, among other health precautions. Facilities are open only to members age 12 and older. Showers, saunas and steam rooms are closed. Only personal, rented lockers will be available.

All employees will wear masks covering their faces, and members must do the same when entering, exiting and in public areas. The main cause for concern involves a member or employee testing positive for COVID-19 after being in a facility. If that happens, Hillis said the building will close for at least 24 hours, receive a thorough cleaning and then reopen.

Cardio rooms and weight rooms are open on a first-come, first-served basis and have limitations based on available footage. Only one person or family is allowed to shoot at a basketball hoop. People should wash their hands when they arrive and leave facilities and frequently use hand sanitizer stations. Pickleball, racquetball and pickup basketball are not available, nor are cycling classes, group exercise classes or personal training. Phase 2, whenever that happens, will involve more in-person group programs like swim lessons.

Other measures include a staff screening, and employees with flu-like symptoms will be sent home. Frequent cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas and surfaces like door handles and bathroom sinks will take place.

Pools are scheduled to open June 1 on a limited basis. Vending machines and drinking fountains (besides water bottle refills) are closed, and coffee will not be served. Buildings will have one entrance and one exit to have one-way movement and minimize close personal contact.

“The Y is not going to look like it did when we closed,” Hillis said. “It’s going to take time to bring things back.”

At the YMCA Tennis Center, people should use every other court to maintain separation; only play tennis with people with whom they have been quarantined; play with a limited number of marked tennis balls; and wash hands and clean rackets before and after playing.

The YMCA recently decided to close Camp Manitou for the summer, a “heartbreaking” choice, Hillis said.

The camp is located in New Auburn, and Hillis said the YMCA couldn’t guarantee campers’ safety this year. Proper precautions could not be ensured at Camp Manitou, but the YMCA feels it can enact safety precautions at local facilities.

“We’re trying to navigate what safety is, to the best of our ability,” Hillis said. “When we looked at (Camp) Manitou, we didn’t open because we could not manage the safety aspect. But when we looked at the facilities and what we’re doing with the soft open, we do think we’ve managed the safety aspect.”

The main challenge is how to adapt to constant uncertainty and frequent changes. Hillis said some workers are not personally comfortable returning to work yet. Many members are hesitant as well, and Hillis understands that initial caution.

For the most part, members have shown patience and support while waiting for the facility to reopen.

“We’re navigating so much uncertainty, and we’re trying the best that we possibly can,” Hillis said.

Some smaller gyms reopen

Significant adjustments have occurred since business shut down in March. Some facilities, like Planet Fitness, remain closed to the public, while Gold’s Gym opened Monday.

Momentum Fitness, 2615 London Road, Suite B, reopened Tuesday with regular hours and a limited number of people allowed inside the building.

Jim Breuer, co-owner and coach, said classes are spread out over a full day, and additional measures include increased sanitation and cleaning on equipment. Breuer hopes people are more willing to emphasize physical fitness and be less susceptible to illness.

FitELITE opened Wednesday with “drastic changes to how we run things,” according to co-owner Dave Hildebrandt.

Hildebrandt said the cleaning budget has about doubled for the gym at 3420 Mall Drive, Suite 7. It will return to regular hours and have an abundance of hand sanitizer, hand wipes and cleaning solutions. Equipment will be disinfected by members and employees after each use.

Members must now bring their own shower towels and will check in through their phone to eliminate direct contact. Maximum capacity for classes was more than halved; before coronavirus, 30 to 35 people could receive instruction at once, but that number will now be 12 to 15.

Hildebrandt knows some members will hesitate to return while others will go back right away. He said the goal is to make the place feel clean yet fun and productive.

Businesses are gradually reopening and, with an abundance of caution, gyms will navigate challenges and try to safely serve members.

AP centerpiece
My 'decision to make': Trump defends criticized use of drug

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump emphatically defended himself Tuesday against criticism from medical experts that his announced use of a malaria drug against the coronavirus could spark wide misuse by Americans of the unproven treatment with potentially fatal side effects.

Trump’s revelation a day earlier that he was taking hydroxychloroquine caught many in his administration by surprise and set off an urgent effort by officials to justify his action. But their attempt to address the concerns of health professionals was undercut by the president himself.

He asserted without evidence that a study of veterans raising alarm about the drug was “false” and an “enemy statement,” even as his own government warned that the drug should be administered for COVID-19 only in a hospital or research setting.

“If you look at the one survey, the only bad survey, they were giving it to people that were in very bad shape,” Trump said. That was an apparent reference to a study of hundreds of patients treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs in which more of those in a group who were administered hydroxychloroquine died than among those who weren’t.

“They were very old. Almost dead,” Trump said. “It was a Trump enemy statement.” During a Cabinet meeting, he elicited a defense of his practice from other officials, including VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who noted that the study in question was not conducted by his agency.

But the drug has not been shown to combat the virus in a multitude of other studies as well. Two large observational studies, each involving around 1,400 patients in New York, recently found no COVID benefit from hydroxychloroquine. Two new ones published last week in the medical journal BMJ reached the same conclusion.

No large, rigorous studies have found the drug safe or effective for preventing or treating COVID-19.

Trump said he decided to take hydroxychloroquine after two White House staffers tested positive for the disease, but he already had spent months promoting the drug as a potential cure or preventive despite the cautionary advice of many of his administration’s top medical professionals.

“This is an individual decision to make,” Trump told reporters during a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans. He later claimed, “It’s gotten a bad reputation only because I’m promoting it.”

Many studies are testing hydroxychloroquine for preventing or limiting coronavirus illness but “at this point in time there’s absolutely no evidence that this strategy works,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious-disease specialist at Emory University in Atlanta.

“My concern is, the president has a big bully pulpit ... maybe people will think there’s some non-public evidence” that the drug works because Trump has chosen to use it, del Rio said. “It creates this conspiracy theory that something works and they’re not telling me about it yet.”

The veterans study that Trump slammed was an analysis by researchers at several universities of hydroxychloroquine with or without azithromycin in COVID-19 patients at veterans hospitals across the nation. It found no benefit and more deaths among those given hydroxychloroquine versus standard care alone. The work was posted on an online site for researchers and has not been reviewed by other scientists. Grants from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Virginia paid for the work.

Addressing concerns that Trump’s example could lead people to misuse the drug, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “tens of millions of people around the world have used this drug for other purposes,” including malaria prophylaxis. She emphasized, “You have to have a prescription. That’s the way it must be done.”

The drug is also prescribed for some lupus and arthritis patients.

Trump said his doctor did not recommend hydroxychloroquine to him but that he requested it from the White House physician.

That physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said in a statement that, after “numerous discussions” with Trump, “we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.”

The Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat COVID-19 outside hospital or research settings because of sometimes-fatal side effects. Regulators issued the alert, in part, based on increased reports of dangerous side effects called in to U.S. poison control centers.

Calls to centers involving hydroxychloroquine increased last month to 96, compared with 49 in April 2019, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers provided to the AP. It was the second month of elevated reports involving the drug, following 79 calls in March. The problems reported included abnormal heart rhythms, seizures, nausea and vomiting.

Trump dismissed reports of side effects, claiming, “What has been determined is it doesn’t harm you. Very powerful drug, I guess, but it doesn’t harm you.”

He added, “I’ve had no impact from it.”

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in an emailed statement Tuesday: “The decision to take any drug is ultimately a decision between a patient and their doctor.”

As research started to emerge that hydroxychloroquine was not helpful, and even potentially harmful, in battling COVID-19, the president’s public rhetoric in support of the drug had faded. But his private hopes had not, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.

Trump also lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a “sick woman” who has “a lot of mental problems” after she questioned Trump’s use of the drug because he is 73 and falsely labeled him “morbidly obese.” Her comments were followed by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who told MSNBC that Trump’s move was “reckless, reckless, reckless.“

Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent in the 2020 election, Joe Biden, chastised the president for being irresponsible in taking hydroxychloroquine.

“What is he doing? What in God’s name is he doing?” Biden said during a Yahoo News town hall Tuesday night. “The words of the president matter.”

After two staffers were known to test positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, the White House mandated that those in the West Wing wear face coverings and introduced daily testing for the president, vice president and those they come in close contact with.

Pence told Fox on Tuesday that he was not taking the drug because his doctor did not recommend it, but said he “would never begrudge any American taking the advice of their physician.”

Prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine surged roughly 80% in March to more than 830,000 compared with same period in the prior year, according to data tracking firm IQVIA. That jump in prescribing came before the federal government accepted nearly 30 million doses of the drug donated to the strategic national stockpile by foreign drugmakers. Since then, millions of those tablets have been shipped to U.S. hospitals nationwide for use treating patients with COVID-19.

Socially distanced classes: ‘Persistent uncertainty’ as school district plans for fall

As it begins discussions about the fall semester, the Eau Claire school district is bracing for another virtual semester or a hybrid on-again, off-again approach.

A new task force of principals, administrators and school and busing representatives will look at three possibilities:

  • A 100% virtual/online approach. Forced to stay closed if the coronavirus resists preventative measures, schools could continue delivering instruction via the internet, as they have since mid-March.
  • A 100% in-person approach. If the virus recedes, “we go back to school in September as if this spring didn’t really happen and we don’t have any restrictions on space or limits on gathering,” said Kim Koller, executive director of administration. “We don’t have to worry about illnesses among students and staff.” But an all in-person fall semester would mean stepped-up cleaning and disinfecting in classrooms, and a relaxation of spring semester guidelines from the state.
  • Schools could take a hybrid approach. If in fall, large gatherings are still prohibited, classes of more than 10 students might have to be split up. If social distancing is still required, desks and cafeteria seating may have to be six feet apart. “One option is to alternate (days),” Koller said. “Another option could be morning and afternoon programming. It could vary by age of students.”

A hybrid method might be the most difficult. On-again, off-again in-person classes, or alternating groups of students in a building, would mean regular disinfecting of about 1.9 million square feet of buildings, as the district’s buildings and grounds crew did this spring, Koller said.

Students would likely have some instruction virtually, and some in person, Schmitt said. Schools would have to balance classes with cleaning.

Social distancing might throw the biggest wrench into the plans.

“If I have 27 fourth-graders and the limits on gathering is 10, that means I can have nine children and a teacher in a classroom,” Koller said. “If that class were then to become face-to-face, it would take up three classrooms, three sections of nine children each.”

That would mean spreading students out across multiple classrooms. Students would then have to alternate face-to-face time, since schools don’t have the classroom space, Koller said.

“What does virtual look like if you’re face-to-face sometimes, and virtual sometimes?” Koller said. “Right now, we need to ask the question, but we don’t necessarily have the answer.”

But no matter what route the district picks, there will be challenges.

If students return to 100% face-to-face classes in the fall, the biggest concern for Jim Schmitt, executive director of teaching and learning, is their social and emotional state.

“By that time it’ll have been nearly six months before students have been part of organized schooling as we’ve known it up until March 16,” Schmitt said. “We’ve learned that online learning, over the last few months, is not as efficient as face-to-face learning. We recognize there will be learning gaps when our students come back with us.”

An all-virtual fall semester would mean not having to worry about socially distancing students in classrooms and school buses — but “the biggest issue we’d want to solve is sustainability for families,” Koller said.

For many families, there are challenges with both approaches that involve some degree of online schooling, said schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck at a Monday meeting of the board. Some families don’t have reliable internet access. Others don’t have enough devices in their homes for multiple children and parents working from home. Special education, bilingual and homeless students also could bump into trouble learning via a computer.

“We know families are stressed right now, trying to be the primary supporter of learning in the home,” Schmitt said. “… It’s extremely inefficient, in terms of instruction, in a virtual environment. We’d have to look at the most critical things to accomplish in the amount of time we’d be in a 100% virtual environment.”

The district won’t have several months to make a decision. It would likely need to have some direction by July 1 to purchase new technology in time, Schmitt said. Most teachers will be gone between early June and late August, meaning they wouldn’t be able to help build a virtual or hybrid model of instruction during much of the summer.

“There is a persistent uncertainty that goes on as this closure progresses, and also as we start the reopening of the state,” Hardebeck said. “For many of (our teachers) this is a new and unpredictable virtual world.”

Financial impact

The task force does not yet have “solid numbers” of what the three options would cost for the district, said Abby Johnson, executive director of business services.

But if the state decides to trim funding for schools to address the economic fallout of the virus, it could mean a multimillion-dollar deficit for the school district next year.

The district is anticipating an extra $1.9 million in funding for the 2020-21 school year from the federal CARES act — the $2 trillion economic stimulus package signed into law in March.

Under the state’s current biennial budget, the district was slated to get an additional $179 per pupil in 2020-21. Combined with the CARES funding, the district would probably sit at a $1.2 million surplus next school year.

But that extra $179 per pupil isn’t likely to come, Johnson said.

“At this point in time we don’t believe (it) will happen because of how the economy has been impacted related to this pandemic,” she said Monday.

The board heard two other, possible scenarios Monday night:

The district’s per-pupil funding could stay flat for 2020-21, which could result in a roughly $1.4 million deficit for the school district next year.

A second possibility is the state reducing aid by $200 per pupil. “We’ve heard a lot of different amounts thrown out there,” Johnson said. That would likely mean a $3.7 million deficit in the district’s budget next year.

Board members on Monday expressed concern about possible aid reductions from the state. 

“I’d like to express my resistance to believe that that option could happen,” board member Eric Torres said. Board President Tim Nordin said he looked at the hybrid approach “with a level of horror.”

There will be some relief, Johnson said. The district saved money this year on several items impacted by the virus: transportation costs, staff positions that weren’t filled, fewer substitute teachers hired and fewer sports and extracurricular fees.

“We don’t know what those exact benefits are going to be yet to the fund balance, and we don’t expect to have that information until mid to late August,” Johnson said. “ … We’re going to be conservative as we build our budget.”

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that two school board members on Monday reacted with concern to a financial scenario involving a $200 per-pupil reduction in state aid, not to a hybrid in-person/virtual approach to fall classes in the school district.