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Expanding the eateries: Eau Claire City Council to vote on sidewalk cafe ordinance changes

A temporary policy intended to help restaurants struggling during the coronavirus pandemic could become permanent today.

During it’s 4 p.m. meeting, the Eau Claire City Council will vote on changing a city ordinance that already allows restaurants in the downtown and Water Street areas to set up tables and chairs on the sidewalk during warm seasons.

Scott Allen, the city’s community development director, said city staff spent several weeks working on the proposed ordinance changes and reviewed what other Wisconsin communities have done.

“Neenah, Green Bay and others have taken this approach to do some expanded opportunities to outdoor seating in their downtowns,” he said during Monday night’s public hearing on the ordinance.

Allowing more outdoor seating is seen as a way cities can help restaurants while their dining room capacities are limited during the pandemic due to public health recommendations.

Changes proposed to Eau Claire’s ordinance would make it faster for restaurants to get a permit to create a sidewalk cafe area. Instead of seeking the City Council’s approval, businesses can get the permit by working directly with city employees. Only in cases where there are unique circumstances, problems with a restaurant’s permit in prior years or objections from neighbors would it go to the council for a decision.

Another change to the ordinance would let restaurants place tables along the front of neighboring buildings — if they have written consent from the owners and tenants of those places.

Using emergency powers granted by the council, City Manager Dale Peters already had put these changes in place about 2½ weeks ago, Allen said. The idea for that was so businesses could more quickly add seating to take advantage of the recent warm weather.

Though he didn’t have exact numbers or names of restaurants that have inquired about the expanded outdoor seating, Allen said “several have shown interest.”

Sidewalk cafe permits normally cost between $42 and $238 — depending on if it’s an annual renewal or applying for the first time, and if the restaurant wants to serve alcohol outdoors. But restaurants that have sought a permit so far this year have gotten them for $0 as part of the city’s effort to cut cost burdens on businesses struggling during the pandemic.

Waiving those fees has been done by Peters under the emergency powers he’s had since mid-March. Those emergency powers, which have been renewed multiple times, are set to expire today. But the council is scheduled to vote this afternoon on extending the city’s emergency declaration to July 28.

For restaurants outside of the downtown and Water Street areas, Allen said they could also expand their seating outdoors. Those restaurants can use portions of their parking lots or other land outside their buildings, but first must get approval from the city to amend their site plans to allow food service in those spots, he said.

Eau Claire is following the lead of other cities that sought to adjust their policies to help restaurants.

Green Bay and De Pere approved allowing restaurants to expand seating into their parking lots and sidewalks, according to a Green Bay Press-Gazette article published on June 5. Kaukauna, Oshkosh and Neenah also have adopted similar temporary outdoor seating policies.

In late May, Wausau’s City Council approved shutting down two blocks of city streets on Wednesday evenings during summer so restaurants there can expand their outdoor seating, according to TV station WSAW. Located in a part of Wausau known as “The Square,” that area’s restaurants usually benefited from people attending free concerts, which have been canceled this summer.

Downtown Eau Claire Inc. surveyed small businesses to see if they wanted to go beyond sidewalk seating by using curbside parking stalls or even traffic lanes. But Allen said the responses wanted to limit the outdoor seating to sidewalks for now.

“Business owners weren’t quite ready to take that leap of closing blocks of streets,” he said.

Distanced classrooms: DPI releases fall semester guidelines for school districts

Under new Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction guidelines, school districts will likely look very different when the 2020 fall semester begins.

The DPI on Monday released new guidelines for school districts planning to reopen in the fall, an 87-page document dubbed “Education Forward.”

Districts should be prepared to shift between in-person, physically distanced and online learning throughout the year, according to the new guidance.

The guidelines include teachers, staff and students wearing masks, classes with no more than 10 students at a time and schedules where buildings are open as few as two days a week, with the bulk of instruction continuing online only.

“DPI indicates this is supposed to be a fluid document,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, at a news conference Monday. “It will likely change over time as disease fluctuates.”

Wisconsin schools superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor expects schools to open in the fall, but said every school district should plan for both in-person and remote teaching.

“There will need to be social distancing, new cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and changes to how educators deliver instruction,” Stanford Taylor said in the new guidance. “There will be students who are not able to return to school due to health concerns and students and staff who may be quarantined due to exposure.”

The DPI’s suggestions for the fall include:

A four-day week: Students go to school, outdoor learning spaces or community organizations for four days each week. On the fifth day, schools are closed for deep cleaning and students will participate in virtual learning.

A two-day rotation: Students go to school, outdoor learning spaces or community organizations for two days each week (Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday). On the three days they’re not in school, students would participate in virtual learning.

A/B week rotation: Half of students go to school, outdoor learning spaces or community organizations for four days per week for in-person teaching, while the other half of students participate in virtual learning from home. The two student groups switch off weekly.

Elementary face-to-face, secondary virtual learning: Elementary students would start back to school first, before other levels. Elementary students go to school four days per week and are distributed across multiple buildings (elementary and middle school buildings) to reduce the student-teacher ratio and accommodate physical distancing. They would be given virtual learning materials for days they don’t report to school. Secondary students would continue virtual learning.

In all scenarios, teachers would use one day per week for planning and professional development. Students wouldn’t report to school on those days, but would learn independently, according to the DPI.

In the recommendations, the DPI assumes that a coronavirus vaccine isn’t likely to be “in broad use during the next 12 to 18 months.”

When schools reopen, it is likely that students and staff will be screened for symptoms; social distancing will be in effect in all settings; and there will be isolation and the timely removal of students and staff who are displaying symptoms, the guidelines said.

Giese said the Eau Claire health department would be “concerned by in-person classes” at the county’s current point and added that such large gatherings of students and staff likely would have to be reconsidered if the county were to see a large spike in cases.

“But over the next couple months, finding ways to do this more safely is possible, and also finding ways to protect children by keeping disease progression as low as possible,” Giese added.

DPI also cautions that another wave of infections could result in changes to operation and school closures. There may be a need for increased mental health support given the fear, loss and isolation that can occur, the guidance said, while noting that deaths from COVID-19 are possible — especially among children and adults in high-risk categories.

“COVID-19 remains highly contagious, and people in Wisconsin are still at risk,” DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said in a statement. “This guidance is designed to be used in consultation with local and tribal health departments, and we encourage school districts to work with them closely to make the best decisions for their communities.”

Officials: County’s first COVID-19 death was a ‘community spread’ case, high-risk patient

The first Eau Claire County resident to die from complications of COVID-19 was over 65 years old, in a high-risk group for virus complications and had underlying health conditions, Eau Claire health officials said Monday.

It is the first death from the virus identified in the county. The person died Sunday, Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said at a Monday news conference.

Eau Claire County recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 19.

The county resident who died didn’t know where the virus had been contracted, Giese noted. The person wasn’t aware of any contact with a known case, and the case wasn’t travel-related.

Roughly one-third of new cases in Eau Claire County in the past two weeks have been ‘community spread’ cases, where the people don’t know where they could have contracted COVID-19, according to county data.

The Health Department has declined to release any other details about the person, including their age, gender, specific underlying conditions and whether or not they were hospitalized at any point.

In a news release Monday, the department said it would not release other information “out of respect for the privacy of the individual and their family.”

“In Eau Claire County one in seven people are in the over-65 age group,” Giese said Monday. “We all know, work with and love people in this age group. Again, those people are more at risk. We have a responsibility to work together to protect those individuals, and it’s important to pause and pay attention to this.”

“The Eau Claire City-County Health Department sends our deepest condolences to the family and friends of this individual,” Giese said in a statement Monday morning. “We are extremely saddened by the loss of one of our community members to this virus.”

As of Monday, the county had identified 163 cases of the new coronavirus, with 128 recovered, Giese said. That includes 12 new cases identified since Friday. Just over 7,000 county residents have tested negative for the virus.

Of the state’s 745 deaths from COVID-19, many have been people who aren’t in long-term care situations, Giese noted. Statewide, 48% of deaths statewide have been in long-term care facilities or group homes, according to the state Department of Health Services.

“While almost half of deaths have been in long term care facilities, that means close to half have not,” Giese said.

The Health Department urged people to stay home if they have symptoms of illness, wash their hands often, cover coughs and sneezes, stay six feet apart from people who don’t live in their household and wear a cloth mask if social distancing can’t be maintained.

“We know people can spread this virus before they know they’re sick. Even if you’re healthy, we ask you to keep 6 feet apart from others and respect the distance of others,” Giese asked Monday.

As of Monday, there have been more than 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state with 745 deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services. Of those who got the virus, 78% have recovered and 3% have died with the rest remaining active cases. The percentage of tests that came back positive of all tested Monday was 3.8%, down from 4.6% the day before.