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Birkie will entail weeklong mix of in-person and virtual skiing
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In late February 2020, a couple of weeks before the pandemic hit, the American Birkebeiner ski marathon was held as usual. Thousands of vocal, maskless spectators packed shoulder to shoulder on Hayward’s Main Street as thousands more skiers pushed to the finish line on a sunny, 30-degree day, most of them unaware of how their lives soon would be upended.

One very long year later, the Birkie is back and not just virtually, a small sign that life is beginning to return to normal.

The 47th annual event, serving as a pandemic bookend of sorts, won’t be like any that preceded it, however. Already underway, it’s a weeklong hybrid of in-person and virtual skiing.

The fact that it’s back in some form reflects the unbowed spirit of determination in the race organizers and the skiers. The national and international cross-country skiing celebration will be subdued and scattered, but there will be celebrating.

“We’re going to be ski racing in the northwoods,” said Ben Popp, executive director. “The easy hand would have been to fold the cards and do (just) virtual, but we’ve done everything we can to put on an event. We said, ‘Dang, we can do this.’”

Doing it has required taking on the additional big responsibility of helping keep skiers and the Hayward-Cable area safe.

“At the end of the day, we feel very confident it’s going to be safe for the skiers, the community, the staff and the volunteers. The people who come will be safe if they heed the protocols,” Popp said.

Fewer than 4,900 skiers — less than half of normal — will be in the Hayward-Cable area. Instead of skiing mostly over two days in two big Birkie and Kortelopet events, they will be spread out over five days, from Wednesday through Sunday, for an average of fewer than 1,000 skiers each day.

There will be no downtown finish, in fact no spectators allowed.

Skiers will start and finish at the race start area outside of Cable, in a 43-kilometer loop course — several miles shorter than usual. They will begin on the skate trail and return on the parallel classic trail, with skate style on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and striders on Friday and Sunday.

Some true racing will be held, with champions crowned in elite skate and classic races on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Otherwise no places will be recorded in age and gender categories, a low-key, participation event done for the challenge of completing a Birkie.

Two Birkies, in a sense, are being held this year. The virtual option has been chosen by close to 40% of skiers. They can ski their distance anytime, anywhere from Feb. 20-28 and report their results to get credit for completion. The Birkie has enlisted 47 ski venues in 11 states that will provide various levels of support for skiers to don their bibs and do their race.

Designated Birkie virtual race venues in west-central Wisconsin include Hoffman Hills near Colfax, Red Cedar State Trail starting in Menomonie, Hickory Ridge north of Bloomer, Blue Hills near Bruce, Black River State Forest in Jackson County and Timberland Hills near Cumberland.

Knowing that some Birkie skiers who come from warm climates also had registered for the race, the Birkie will allow entrants to complete their Birkie by roller-skiing, running, biking, swimming, rowing and more with predetermined distance equivalents for each of those activities.

“All year long we’ve been stressed,” Popp said. “Being outdoors and active is one thing you could do. Even if you’re not here physically, I think you’ll feel connected to this, celebrating the lifestyle and an accomplishment that’s huge.”

Among Chippewa Valley skiers who chose the in-person event over virtual was Bill Zimmerman of Tilden. He will be doing his 33rd Birkie on Thursday, heading up north with friends.

“The biggest part of the Birkie is skiing up there that day. This is as close as we can come to having a Birkie this year,” Zimmerman said.

He called the event a “pro-leisure” tour with no personal pressure to go fast and is just happy that at least some semblance of a Birkie is being held.

Regarding his personal safety and the protocols, he believes the Birkie has prepared “as well as can be expected.”

Safety measures in place

The safety of in-person skiers, who are requested to have a COVID-19 test before arriving in the area, has been addressed multiple ways. The Birkie held other events in the past year, such as a fall trail run and winter trail tour, where safety measures were tested.

Staff also learned from other national and international athletic events, such as the Ironman, that Popp said have not been traced to mass spreading of the virus.

“We’ve had almost an entire year to prepare, so we’re fortunate. Our community wouldn’t have been ready 10 months ago,” Popp said.

Skiers will drive to the start-finish area instead of being bused and walk to the start, with no indoor gathering spaces. They are expected to wear masks in the start and finish areas and at aid stations. Wave starts are about one-quarter as large as normal, allowing for social distancing before and during the race. Race aid stations will be self-serve and touchless — a ski pole pressed on a pedal will dispense water or energy fluid into a skier’s bottle; skiers must bring their own water bottles and food.

Popp said the Birkie has encouraged skiers to consider the virtual option to allay any of their health concerns, but the goal also is to help reduce the number of outside people coming to the sparsely populated region and potentially causing a spike in COVID-19 cases. For example, Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall is skiing her Birkie in Alaska, and 2020 women’s champion Jessica Yeaton is skiing her race in New Mexico.

As a result of the reduced number of on-site skiers, the number of volunteers needed is way down, from about 3,000 to the hundreds. A food station typically has 65 volunteers; this year it will have two or three, Popp said.

The changes have presented challenges for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation staff of 21 people. When a problem would arise they’d say, “How do we do that? I don’t know; we’ve never done it before,” Popp said. “I have to give a shout out to a really amazing staff for all the researching and innovating they’ve done.”

The trail, for example, will have to be groomed five days straight, and Popp is concerned about the snow base holding up. A finish area had to be constructed near the start area. For virtual skiers and to avoid mass bib pickup, the Birkie gave entrants the option for the first time to have their bib, race medal and hat mailed to them.

Only about 2,000 bibs will be picked up in person — but at a drive-up station. Most bibs, more than 5,000, were mailed to skiers when the option was offered. Typically, skiers pick up their bib packet as part of the Birkie Expo packed with vendors; the Expo is virtual this year.

“We didn’t know how that would unfold, but we were not prepared to mail out that many bibs at all. Our little retail store ramped up to be like Amazon,” Popp said. Skiers received tracking messages when their bib was mailed and when delivered.

Some pandemic-forced race changes — Popp noted the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” — won’t be one-offs. A new Birkie app, the bib mailing option, advances in communicating with entrants and more changes either will continue to be used or will be adapted in some form in future years.

“There’s a silver lining in that a lot of the tech and innovation (needed this year) we’ll be able to reuse. The pandemic has forced us to pause and think a little bit,” Popp said.

Popp and staff already are planning for the February 2022 race, hoping for a full in-person event and a downtown Hayward finish but understanding there still could be pandemic impacts.

“We’re confident about having a much more normal Birkie, but maybe not everything will be back,” he said.

He knows some skiers are disappointed, but they understand the 2021 Birkie is happening only because concessions have been made.

“We’ve heard a lot of positive feedback. There are a lot of options, and people are happy with that,” Popp said. “Eventually the sunshine is going to come back.”

Local building projects among those recommended by Evers
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EAU CLAIRE – Gov. Tony Evers seeks to spend $2.4 billion on building projects across 31 counties in Wisconsin over the next two years, with nearly half of that going toward UW System projects.

However, Evers' 2021-23 capital budget proposal, released Monday, did not include the second half of funding for the planned new science building at UW-Eau Claire.

“The capital budget is an investment in the up-keep of our infrastructure for longevity and public safety and in the future we want to build for our state,” Evers said in a statement. “This capital budget will have a far-reaching impact on our communities and our state for generations to come.”

Of the nearly $2.4 billion proposed, $1 billion would be for UW System projects, including $116.7 million to build a new Science and Technology Innovation Center at UW-River Falls and $3.3 million for art and design studio renovations at UW-Eau Claire's Haas Fine Arts Center.

Evers said the budget would leverage historically low bond rates and also prioritize funding for corrections and health services facilities; state parks and forests; upgrades at veterans homes and improvements at veterans cemeteries; creation of a new $163 million state office building and parking garage in Milwaukee; and redevelopment of a block near the Capitol in Madison for a new state office building and home for the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum.

The Democratic governor's proposal must pass both the State Building Commission, which meets March 17, and the Legislature's budget-writing committee, which is controlled by Republicans.

One of the Joint Finance Committee co-chairs, Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said the Legislature's focus will be on funding necessary maintenance and repair projects.

"Sound budgeting over the past decade put us in a strong position last capital budget to make significant investments that stayed within our means," Born said in a statement. "While it won't be at the levels the Governor has proposed, we will continue to reinvest in our state's infrastructure to make sure our state continues to thrive."

State agencies submitted about $2.9 billion in requests last fall to address a growing backlog of deferred maintenance in recent years.

The bulk of the UW System money would go toward renovations, replacements and repairs to buildings constructed decades ago that are breaking down with increasing frequency and unpredictability.

UW-River Falls Chancellor Connie Foster issued a statement Monday expressing gratitude for the governor recommending funding of its new science building.

"We are very grateful that Governor Evers has acknowledged the value of the Science and Technology Innovation Center (SciTech) to our region and state by including full construction funding for this facility in his 2021-23 Capital Budget recommendations," Foster said. "Having received the $2 million in planning funds in the last biennium, we were confident that the state understood the impact of this new type of facility."

However, the governor's proposal would not allocate the remaining $147 million needed for the planned Science and Health Sciences building at UW-Eau Claire.

The science building, which would replace 58-year-old Phillips Hall, received $109 million in the current state budget. The second half of funding did not get into the UW System’s 2021-23 budget request, instead appearing in a long-range plan for 2025-27.

In the meantime, the campus building committee is working with the project’s architect/engineer consultant team on a full pre-design of the new facility, said Jake Wrasse, the university's legislative and community relations liaison.

Chippewa Valley legislators told Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce members in December that they were asking the governor to include the building’s remaining funding in the upcoming budget. The local chamber’s leaders sent a letter on Jan. 14 to Evers to reinforce the business community’s advocacy for the project.

The project includes approval for $13.7 million in philanthropic contributions. Mayo Clinic Health System has set a goal for philanthropy to support the cost of creating and occupying a 10,000-square-foot shared research workspace in the building.

The capital budget proposal also doesn't include $5.6 million requested by the UW System to provide planning and design services for UW-Stout to create a new, unified home for the College of Education, Hospitality, Health & Human Sciences within Heritage Hall.

"We are very disappointed that the Heritage Hall renovation planning and design project recommended by the Board of Regents was not recommended by the governor," said Doug Mell, special assistant to the chancellor at UW-Stout. "We will work with our legislative delegation during the capital budget review process to seek a suitable outcome."

Other west-central Wisconsin projects recommended for funding include: 

• $14.1 million to build a new health services unit at Stanley Correctional Institution. This project would consist of a 26,075-square-foot building to provide space for health, dental, psychological, therapeutic and lab services to accommodate the needs of more than 1,600 adult male inmates.

• $4.4 million to expand and remodel the health services unit at Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls. This project would involve building a 7,386-square-foot addition to the existing health services unit to serve more than 1,000 adult male inmates.

• $1.3 million to construct a 5,300-square-foot maintenance building on Wisconsin Army National Guard land in Chippewa Falls.

• $3.5 million to replace the nearly 50-year-old toilet/shower building and vault toilets at Lake Wissota State Park in Chippewa County. The project is intended to improve services for campers while reducing maintenance costs at the park.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

US deaths at brink of 500K, confirming virus' tragic reach

For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting tiny flags across her yard — one for each of the more than 1,800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19 — the toll was mostly a number. Until two women she had never met rang her doorbell in tears, seeking a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.

Then Pollock knew her tribute, however heartfelt, would never begin to convey the grief of a pandemic that has now claimed nearly 500,000 lives in the U.S. and counting.

“I just wanted to hug them,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”

After a year that has darkened doorways across the U.S., the pandemic is poised to surpass a milestone that once seemed unimaginable, a reminder of the virus’s reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or have a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“We haven’t really fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”

Experts warn that over 100,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.

At other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.

“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counseled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.

In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

Still, at almost half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

The toll, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early projections, which assumed that federal and state governments would marshal a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.

Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal by many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fueled the spread.

The figures alone do not come close to capturing the heartbreak.

“I never once doubted that he was not going to make it. ... I so believed in him and my faith,” said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.

The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then, on Jan. 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat its last. He was 36 and left behind a 3-year-old son.

“Today it’s us. And tomorrow it could be anybody,” Nancy Espinoza said.

By late last fall, 54 percent of Americans reported knowing someone who had died of COVID-19 or had been hospitalized with it, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The grieving was even more widespread among Black Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.

Deaths have nearly doubled since then, with the scourge spreading far beyond the Northeast and Northwest metropolitan areas slammed by the virus last spring and the Sun Belt cities hit hard last summer.

In some places, the seriousness of the threat was slow to sink in.

When a beloved professor at a community college in Petoskey, Michigan, died last spring, residents mourned, but many remained doubtful of the threat’s severity, Mayor John Murphy said. That changed over the summer after a local family hosted a party in a barn. Of the 50 who attended, 33 became infected. Three died, he said.

“I think at a distance people felt ‘This isn’t going to get me,’” Murphy said. “But over time, the attitude has totally changed from ‘Not me. Not our area. I’m not old enough,’ to where it became the real deal.”

For Anthony Hernandez, whose Emmerson-Bartlett Memorial Chapel in Redlands, California, has been overwhelmed handling burial of COVID-19 victims, the most difficult conversations have been the ones without answers, as he sought to comfort mothers, fathers and children who lost loved ones.

His chapel, which arranges 25 to 30 services in an ordinary month, handled 80 in January. He had to explain to some families that they would need to wait weeks for a burial.

“At one point, we had every gurney, every dressing table, every embalming table had somebody on it,” he said.

In Boise, Idaho, Pollock started the memorial in her yard last fall to counter what she saw as widespread denial of the threat. When deaths spiked in December, she was planting 25 to 30 new flags at a time. But her frustration has been eased somewhat by those who slow or stop to pay respect or to mourn.

“I think that is part of what I was wanting, to get people talking,” she said, “Not just like, ‘Look at how many flags are in the yard today compared to last month,’ but trying to help people who have lost loved ones talk to other people.”


Associated Press video journalist Eugene Garcia contributed to this story.