EAU CLAIRE — Air travel took off early this year at Chippewa Valley Regional Airport, with the number of people getting on and off commercial flights up 23% through February.
But that upward trajectory changed course abruptly when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in mid-March and passengers became skittish about flying.
Operations — a combination of boardings and deplanings — were down 52% in March from the same month in 2019 at the airport and then plummeted in April to a mere 133, down 96% from 3,414 a year earlier.
Airport activity has risen slightly in every ensuing month until suffering a slight dip in October when COVID-19 cases were surging in Wisconsin, but commercial operations still totaled only 16,947 through October, down 59% from the same 10 months of 2019, despite a decline of only 9% in scheduled takeoffs and landings.
Meanwhile, as airport officials ride out the coronavirus turbulence, they are working to make the facility safer for people who still need or want to fly during the pandemic.
“Even during a pandemic, air transportation is still a critical travel option for people,” said Charity Zich, Chippewa Valley Regional Airport director. “We’re doing everything we can to make our facility as safe as possible for the traveling public.”
The Eau Claire airport took a key step in that direction this week when it announced that it has added new equipment to its air handling system to prevent coronavirus pathogens from spreading in its passenger terminal.
The bipolar ionization system, commonly used in hospitals, creates a high concentration of ions to attach to pathogens and render them inactive. It also disinfects surfaces and prevents the spread of other germs such as the common cold.
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been committed to making improvements to ensure we are continuing to provide a safe airport facility for travelers and people working at the airport,” Zich said.
The airport previously implemented more frequent disinfection of surfaces, added more dispensers for hand sanitizing gel and increased the use of touch-free technology. It is in the process of installing touch-free paper towel dispensers and water bottle filling stations.
Yet Zich understands that all of the airport safety measures in the world won’t make everyone comfortable with travel right now, especially with COVID-19 cases spiking locally and public health officials encouraging people to stay home as much as possible to limit their chances of contracting or spreading the virus that as of Thursday had infected 10,466 people and killed 70 in Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties this year.
“While at the end of the day, I think we all understand we’re safest at this point when we’re at home and not out in community, there are still people who have to travel right now for work or for critical family situations and it’s important for us to provide the safest and healthiest facility we can for those people.”
Despite what people might think, Zich said, studies show a low risk of inflight transmission of the virus.
The International Air Transport Association last month reported that since the start of 2020 there had been 44 cases of COVID-19 identified in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight journey.
With roughly 1.2 billion passengers traveling during that time, that equates to one case for every 27 million passengers, the IATA said.
Contributing factors to the low incidence of inflight transmission, according to research by airplane manufacturers, include limited face-to-face interactions among passengers, seat backs acting as a physical barrier to air movement from one row to another, the use of HEPA air filters and the high rate of fresh air coming into the cabin. Air is exchanged 20 to 30 times per hour on board most aircraft, which compares favorably with the averages for office space (two to three times per hour) and schools (10 to 15 times per hour), the IATA reported.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though it hasn’t wavered from its stance that travel increases people’s chances of getting and spreading COVID-19, has agreed that viruses and germs don’t spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on planes. But the agency maintains social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase people’s risk of getting COVID-19.
The CDC also has pointed to the time travelers spend in security lines and airport terminals as potential risks because that can bring them in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces.
That highlights a potential advantage of smaller, less crowded regional terminals such as Chippewa Valley Regional Airport where it’s much easier to practice social distancing than in large metro airports, Zich said.
Fortunately for the airport, Zich said, private aviation has remained strong through the pandemic, with total takeoffs and landings down only 14% in the first 10 months of this year and an even smaller percentage in October. Likewise, though income from parking and passenger facility charges is down, airport revenue hasn’t suffered too much because rents for hangars, car rental agencies and the Hangar 54 Grill are fixed, she said.
The airport also received federal CARES Act funding to help offset pandemic-related revenue losses and keep all of its workers employed.
The comfort level of travelers with mask wearing and sharing space with other people on airplanes varies widely, said Denise Petricka, president of Higgins Travel Leaders in Eau Claire.
Some travelers have no reservations about flying amid the pandemic, while many others are waiting until COVID-19 cases diminish and the environment seems safer.
The sharp drop-off in bookings has been devastating to travel agents, who get no commissions until customers complete their trips, said Petricka, who is beginning to see signs of light in a dreary year.
“Things do look a little better lately. I’m encouraged by the number of calls we’re getting,” she said. “We are booking some stuff, but it’s certainly not what it should be.”
Many callers are inquiring about cruises or European vacations, even though the cruise industry hasn’t reopened and Europe remains closed to American visitors.
“A lot of people talk about pandemic fatigue, and I can tell you it’s real,” Petricka said. “People are just itching to go someplace.”
Petricka said she recently returned from a vacation to Mexico in which she said everyone wore masks in airports and on planes and her airline followed strict sanitization procedures, prompting her to declare, “I have never felt more safe.”
Unlike after past air travel disruptions, leisure travel appears to be recovering faster than business travel, Petricka and Zich agreed.
While businesses are often able to rely on video conferencing to replace face-to-face meetings and sometimes can’t afford the recommended 14-day quarantines for employees after flights, leisure travelers are just eager for a vacation after a tough year, Petricka said.
Looking forward, Petricka and Zich both said there is no way to know when air travel will bounce back. In the meantime, Zich is doing whatever she can to make the local airport safer and Petricka is following the mantra of “dream now, travel later” in encouraging vacationers to plan the trips they want to take once they feel it’s safe to depart.
“It may be years until the travel industry is all the way back, but I do believe it will come back,” Petricka said. “And when it does, whether it’s a vaccine or whatever factor that ignites it, we’re going to be inundated. That pent-up demand will be coming at us, and we’ll be ready.”
EAU CLAIRE — Health officials are beseeching people to stick to their households and not host or attend big Thanksgiving gatherings, warning that the coronavirus’ outlook is dire as local hospitals are filled with COVID-19 patients.
“We’re asking people to say, ‘It’s more important to protect those we love,’” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a Thursday press briefing.
Ideally, people shouldn’t travel or visit extended family gatherings for Thanksgiving, but celebrate with the people they live with instead, Giese said.
But if they do attend a gathering, “keep those numbers as small as possible,” she added.
If you can, quarantining for two weeks before and after you travel makes it safer, Giese said.
Getting tested for COVID-19 before going to the family’s Thanksgiving dinner is better than nothing, she said, but it’s not a sufficient precaution.
“A negative test at some point before or after you travel is not a guarantee that you don’t have COVID-19,” Giese said, noting that the virus may take days to show symptoms after exposure. “Don’t see that as a ticket to go visit grandma … don’t go and visit people that are at higher risk.”
If people must visit family or friends over the holiday, don’t toss out your mask or social distancing rules, Giese cautioned.
“My Thanksgiving will be significantly different this year,” she said. “All of ours will be, I hope.”
State health officials are also chiming in with pleas to stay home.
“I know this upcoming holiday season is going to be especially tough. But the actions we take now will ensure that we can celebrate together once this pandemic is over,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday in a press release from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
The state DHS recommended sharing a meal with people who live with you, delivering meals to others without physical contact, visiting with family and friends online and shopping online instead of in-person.
Government and health officials say that hospitals are alarmingly strained, making large gatherings even more dangerous right now.
“Our hospitals are overwhelmed, our health care workers are exhausted, and too many families have lost a loved one,” said DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk in a news release. “But that doesn’t mean we have to choose between celebrating the holidays and the virus.”
Mayo Clinic Health System announced Tuesday that all its beds in northwest Wisconsin are full. The regional health system had no intensive care or medical surgical beds available at its hospitals in Eau Claire, Menomonie, Barron, Bloomer and Osseo.
All 36 medical-surgical beds at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire were also full as of Tuesday, 14 of them occupied by COVID-19 patients, said Chief Administrative Officer Bill Priest.
In the press release, Evers cited a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that projected 6,000 Wisconsin residents could die COVID-19 by the end of the year.
Just over 2,500 Wisconsin residents have died of COVID-19 as of Thursday.
COVID-19 hospitalization and death data in Wisconsin this week was alarming.
Eau Claire County reported 183 new cases of the virus on Thursday. Of the county’s nearly 5,500 cases, 1,218 are active cases, and another nearly 4,000 are recovered.
Cementing hospital officials’ warnings that hospital beds are filling up, about 173 coronavirus patients from Eau Claire County have ever been hospitalized — another 25 in the last seven days.
The Health Department’s weekly COVID-19 tracking data, which it released Thursday, showed a slight uptick of the virus’ spread since last week.
The county’s test-positivity rate, or the percentage of all tests that come back positive, rose this week to 19.7%; last week it was at 18.6%.
The community spread percentage, or the portion of people who test positive who don’t know where they contracted the virus, is slightly down this week: 32% over the last 14 days, compared to last week’s 35%.
Contact tracers were able to contact only 52% of new cases within 24 hours this week, compared to 69% of new cases the week before.
The Health Department typically lists how many close contacts it can reach within 48 hours; last week they reached 42%. They are no longer tracking this data because contact tracers can’t handle the number of new positive cases daily, Giese said.
Wisconsin also set a new record Thursday, adding 7,497 new cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday, 293,000 state residents have tested positive for the virus, and almost 5% have ever been hospitalized.
The state DHS added a new category to its disease dashboard on Thursday: “Critically high,” which means the virus’ spread is nearly three times higher than the previous category, “very high.” Eau Claire County is in the critically high category as of Thursday.
“We’re in a place now we were trying to prevent being in,” Giese said Thursday. “...We have entered a new phase of the pandemic. It’s clear from the data we’re in a different space than we were even a month ago.”
UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls will move all of their classes online starting Nov. 30 due to rising coronavirus cases throughout Wisconsin and reports of hospitals in the region being near capacity for COVID-19 patients.
The three announced Thursday that while their campus buildings will be open for the rest of the semester — including residence halls, libraries and dining services — but all instruction will be done on the internet instead of in classrooms.
Leaders of the universities made the decision following reports this week of local hospitals at or near their limits and an executive order issued Tuesday by Gov. Tony Evers that asks people to voluntarily shelter in place.
“These two announcements are what really changed the landscape from my perspective at UW-Eau Claire,” Chancellor Jim Schmidt said in an online news conference.
The chancellors are leaving it up to students and faculty on whether they want to return to their dorm rooms and offices after Thanksgiving break.
“We understand that many students would like to return to campus and continue their studies, and that is a decision each and every student must make for themselves,” Schmidt stated.
For those who do travel or host out-of-town guests for Thanksgiving, Schmidt said they will be required to be tested for COVID-19 both before and after they return to campus. And for the rest of the semester, twice-weekly testing will be mandatory for students and faculty on the UW-Eau Claire campus.
University academic buildings will remain open so students and faculty can go into them for critical research and lab work. Students with internships, clinical and field placements will get information from their respective programs on how they should proceed after Thanksgiving break.
In a letter to her campus, UW-Stout Chancellor Katherine Frank addressed concerns of students who have on-campus jobs, stating that they should continue to report to work.
The joint statement from the three area campuses emphasized the change in instruction does not indicate increasing amounts of COVID-19 in their students and employees.
“The fact is the numbers have been going in the right direction,” Schmidt said.
UW-Eau Claire did see upticks in positive COVID-19 cases following the Labor Day holiday and Halloween, but Schmidt added that “for the last few days the numbers were down.”
The area chancellors credited former Wisconsin governor and current UW System President Tommy Thompson for recommending they approach the change in instruction as a group instead of individually.
“President Thompson encouraged us to work together as a region in making this decision and we chancellors agree that this is the best approach,” UW-River Falls Chancellor Connie Foster said in a statement.
Online-only classes for the remainder of the fall semester is not necessarily an indication of how the rest of the academic year will be taught.
“I want to emphasize that this decision does not affect our Winterm or Spring 2021 semester plans,” Frank said in the letter to the UW-Stout campus.
The university is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid and online class options for the spring semester, she stated.
Schmidt said based on UW-Eau Claire’s ability to keep COVID-19 under control this semester on campus, that bodes well for students coming back in spring.
“We’re feeling very optimistic about spring semester,” he said.