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Chippewa Valley Museum reopening, but bring a mask and keep your distance

After a three-month-long closure, the Chippewa Valley Museum is reopening today with new requirements for masks and social distancing.

The museum will require employees and visitors to wear masks, and ask visitors to stay at least six feet apart from people they don’t live with.

“The Health Department strongly recommended masks … we felt that was the safest thing to do for the public, so we added an extra layer of precaution,” said museum director Carrie Ronnander on Tuesday. “To be frank, (opening) is exciting but there’s some trepidation. How is this really going to go?”

As the popular Eau Claire museum reopens with limited summer hours, it’s changing more of its day-to-day operations to cut down on COVID-19 transmission risk, Ronnander said.

The museum’s new summer hours are 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Visitor groups must be of nine or fewer people, with a 50-person cap on the building at any one time. Museum exhibits are rearranged so people can follow one-way foot traffic; hands-on elements have been temporarily removed from most exhibits.

Museum visitors and employees must stay six feet apart. Staffers will clean commonly touched surfaces every 30 to 60 minutes, and hand sanitizer and disposable masks will be offered to visitors.

If attendees show signs of COVID-19 symptoms, they won’t be allowed into the building, according to the museum’s reopening plan. Signs of COVID-19 infection include a fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, chills, muscle aches or congestion.

Olaf Lind, museum communications specialist, called it “a gradual reopening.”

“This allows time for staff to learn new procedures and see what works and doesn’t work in our main museum building,” Lind said in a news release from the museum Tuesday.

Some exhibits will stay closed, likely until later in the year, Ronnander said. Visitors won’t be able to access the History Quest exhibit, ice cream parlor, museum store, Log House and Sunnyview School House just yet.

That’s because the museum depends on volunteers to help daily operations, Ronnander said. Its roughly 300 volunteers are mostly over age 60, putting them in a category that’s higher-risk for coronavirus complications — so six of the museum’s 10 staff members will be overseeing the exhibits during the first phase of reopening, Ronnander said.

“When we have more manpower ... to clean and monitor and adapt, then we’ll be able to open those spaces,” Ronnander said.

In March, Ronnander predicted that this year the museum would lose between 50% and 70% of its typical annual 18,000 visitors due to the virus. That’s partially because 50% of the museum’s visitors in summer hail from outside the Chippewa Valley, Ronnander said — and the virus means the Wisconsin tourism industry is expecting to take a hit this year.

“I don’t know what the summer is going to be like at all,” Ronnander said Tuesday. “We’re kind of expecting it’ll be more regional, fewer outside travelers. But as we’ve learned through this entire pandemic experience, prepare for the unknown.”

The pandemic has inspired one of the museum’s two new mini-exhibits: a display on epidemics, including an iron lung display. The other mini-exhibit will feature voting materials and suffrage — timely because of the 2020 election and August’s 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, Ronnander said.

Today begins the museum’s first phase of reopening. In mid-July, up to 100 people may be allowed in the building, volunteers may return and more exhibits may reopen, according to the museum’s reopening plan.

Phases three and four will happen when the Eau Claire City-County Health Department moves forward with its own reopening plan (phase four means the museum will return to the “pre-pandemic experience,” except for encouraging visitors to wash their hands.)

“I’m hoping (visitors) gradually come out to test the waters,” Ronnander said Tuesday.

The museum is also offering virtual exhibits, for people who don’t feel comfortable visiting in person. They can be found at www.cvmuseum.com/explore/virtual-exhibits/.


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Judge's Facebook friendship upends custody case

MADISON — A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a judge’s decision to become Facebook friends with a woman whose child custody case he was hearing created at least the appearance of bias, the first case of its kind in the state and one that could test the boundaries of social media use by judges.

The case presented the question of whether a judge can violate due process rights by becoming friends with someone on Facebook. That hasn’t been addressed yet by the U.S. Supreme Court, making the case one it may want to take up, said attorney Brandon Schwartz.

“Social media is obviously not going away,” said Schwartz, who represented the mother fighting for custody of her child. “It would be an opportunity to provide some guidance by the U.S. Supreme Court to all of the courts across the country.”

The ruling was the latest in a series of examples across the country where a judge’s actions on social media call into question their ability to fairly consider cases before them. For example, two years ago the Florida Supreme Court said judges could be Facebook friends with attorneys.

Schwartz said the Wisconsin case was the first case of its kind where a violation of due process rights was alleged because of a judge becoming friends with someone on Facebook.

“It’s an issue the U.S. Supreme Court may have an interest in,” he said.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the court determined that “the extreme facts of this case rebut the presumption of judicial impartiality,” a due process violation. Justice Annette Ziegler also used the case to “strongly urge” Wisconsin judges to “weigh the advantages and disadvantages of using electronic social media like Facebook.”

“I am concerned that no matter how cautious and attentive the judge may be, a judge who uses electronic social media may expose both the judge and the judiciary as a whole to an appearance of bias or impropriety,” she wrote as part of the 4-3 majority.

But Justice Brian Hagedorn, in a dissent, said even though the case involves social media, “an area comparatively unexplored in judicial ethics circles,” the facts are rather ordinary and the judge’s actions did not violate the due process rights of the father as he fought for custody rights.

There’s not enough evidence to show whether the Facebook friendship unfairly influenced the judge, Hagedorn said.

“Judges are people too,” Hagedorn wrote. “The very concept of an impartial judiciary depends upon the belief that judges can manage through their biases, news feeds, political supporters, former co-workers, and neighbors to render decisions without fear or favor to any party.”

The case began in 2016 when Angela Carroll filed a motion in Barron County to adjust a custody arrangement she had reached with her son’s father, Timothy Miller. She argued Miller had abused her, an accusation Miller denied.

Three days after Carroll and Miller submitted their final written arguments in 2017, the judge handling the case, Barron County Judge Michael Bitney, accepted a Facebook friend request from Carroll.

Carroll proceeded to “like” 16 of the judge’s posts, “loved” two of them and commented on two of them. The bulk of Carroll’s reactions to Bitney’s posts were “likes” to prayers and Bible verses that he posted. None of the posts were directly related to the pending custody case. However, she also shared or liked several third-party posts that were related to domestic violence, an issue that was contested at the hearing, the court ruling said.

The judge never disclosed the Facebook friendship. He also did not like or comment on any of Carroll’s posts and didn’t reply to her comments. He didn’t deny reading them, however.

“Carroll was effectively signaling to Judge Bitney that they were like-minded and, for that reason, she was trustworthy,” Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote for the majority.

A month later Bitney ruled that Miller had abused Carroll, gave her sole custody and physical placement of their son and ordered a review of Miller’s child support obligations.

After the Facebook friendship was discovered, Miller asked the judge to reconsider his ruling.

The judge said he was impartial, noting that he had simply accepted her friendship but did not “like” or comment on any of her posts. He also said that he had already decided on his ruling before accepting her Facebook friend request.

No “reasonable person ... would seriously call into question the court’s objectivity or impartiality,” the judge said.

A state appeals court later ruled in Miller’s favor, saying the judge’s actions created a substantial risk of bias resulting in the appearance of partiality. It ordered that the custody case proceed with a different judge and the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed.


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Chippewa Valley shines in census response rates

Eau Claire County residents are among the best in the nation so far at ensuring they are counted in the 2020 census.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its chilling effect on regional efforts to promote participation in the once-a-decade head count of the nation’s population, 77.4% of Eau Claire County households had filled out their census forms through Sunday.

That ranked seventh among the state’s 72 counties and 25th among all 3,215 counties in the United States, according to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“That’s pretty remarkable for Eau Claire,” said Anna Zook, a reference and digital services librarian at L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library and member of the Eau Claire Complete Count Committee. “I’m pretty proud of that and I think it speaks to the team we formed to get the word out.”

Four other regional counties — St. Croix at 78.3%, Chippewa at 74.1%, Pierce at 71.5% and Dunn at 69.9% — also exceeded Wisconsin’s response rate of 68.4%, which ranked second in the nation behind the 70.9% rate posted by Minnesota. The national response rate was 61.4%.

St. Croix County’s rate ranked sixth in Wisconsin and 18th in the U.S., while Chippewa County came in at 19th in the state and 103rd in the nation, the Census Bureau indicated.

With a number of in-person census promotion events being canceled in Chippewa County because of COVID-19, Chippewa Falls city planner Brad Hentschel said he has been impressed with the local response.

“I’m glad people are finding a way to get it done,” Hentschel said, speculating that the pandemic may have boosted the response rate because people had extra time on their hands as they hunkered down at home. “We are trying to communicate the importance of it and how it directly impacts federal aid.”

The top three self-reporting counties in the nation, all with rates between 81% and 82%, were Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington in southeast Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is doing really well,” said Ellisa Johnson, the Census Bureau’s deputy regional director. “Residents in Wisconsin have always been super conscientious about the importance of the census and taking their civic responsibility seriously.”

The only Badger State counties with a response rate below 30% were Vilas County at 27.6% and Menominee County at 13.9%.

Response rates in other west-central Wisconsin counties were: Pepin, 68.2%; Trempealeau, 66.5%; Buffalo, 66.2%; Clark, 65.7%; Barron, 62.8%; Jackson, 60.5%; and Rusk, 53.5%.

Lake Hallie had the highest response rate, at 81.4%, among west-central Wisconsin cities and villages. That ranked 51st among 600 municipalities in the state.

Among the other Chippewa Valley municipalities exceeding the state response rate were Eau Claire at 77.9%, Chippewa Falls at 76.2% and Altoona at 75.7%. Menomonie’s rate of 66.8% came in just below the statewide pace.

The Eau Claire County town of Pleasant Valley ranked No. 16 among the state’s more than 1,200 towns with a response rate of 86.2%.

The numbers show 1.9 million households have responded statewide and 90.8 million nationwide.

The coronavirus pandemic hit just as the census was ramping up for most Americans, causing the Census Bureau to delay door-to-door operations and push back deadlines for wrapping up the count.

Census takers are scheduled to begin knocking on the doors of households that have not responded on Aug. 11, but Johnson emphasized that individuals can still respond online, return questionnaires or call the bureau’s toll-free number through the end of October. Pandemic-related delays have pushed the deadline back for the bureau to report initial numbers to the president from December 2020 to April 2021.

The Census Bureau opened the count on March 12 and began mailing invitations for households to participate in what is intended to be the first primarily online census by going to my2020census.gov.

Despite the impact of COVID-19, local government leaders have tried alternative ways to promote census participation, including posting links on websites and sharing social media posts.

Zook said Eau Claire library staff are still hoping to promote census participation among patrons once the building reopens.

“We don’t want census workers to have to go out and knock on people’s doors because people are less likely to open their doors at this time,” Zook said, referring to fears about contracting the virus.

It’s important to get a complete count because legislative districts and federal funding are based on the updated population numbers generated by the census, local officials have said.

Each year the federal government distributes more than $675 billion to states and communities based on census data, Johnson said. The money goes toward highways, schools, libraries, emergency services, medical care, community development and dozens of other programs.

Municipalities also use census figures when doing long-range planning for neighborhoods and services.