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Jobless rate declines, but labor force shrinks

EAU CLAIRE — Unemployment declined last month in the Eau Claire area, but the number of people reporting to work remained relatively unchanged.

The jobless rate in the Eau Claire metropolitan area — consisting of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties — fell to 6.7% last month after it had been at 8.4% in June, according to labor statistics released Wednesday by the state.

“We’ve definitely seen an improvement since we had that spike, but it’s still higher than it was pre-COVID,” said Scott Hodek, chief of the office of economic affairs at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

For example, in July 2019 the metro area had a 3.5% unemployment rate. COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic in March, leading to many businesses closing and pushing unemployment to a peak of 12.3% in April for the Eau Claire area.

Thousands returned to work since the statewide safer-at-home order was canceled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in mid-May and local health guidelines enacted after that were less stringent, allowing businesses to gradually reopen.

However, the number of people employed in the Eau Claire area showed no significant change between June and July. Seasonally adjusted figures showed 100 fewer people were working last month than in June.

The reason that employment didn’t climb while unemployment dropped was a decline in the area’s labor force, based on Wisconsin workforce data. The labor pool shrunk by about 1,860 people in the Eau Claire metro area between June and July.

Most of those people leaving the labor force were already unemployed, which is what led the local unemployment rate to drop last month, Hodek said.

Some of those could have been college students who stayed in the Eau Claire area hoping part-time or seasonal jobs would come back, but ultimately decided to leave the area or suspend their job search, Hodek said.

“I do think it’s tied to some of those jobs in the industries that have been harder hit,” he said.

The service sector where employees often have close contact with customers is a part of the economy that Hodek said had not fully rebounded to bring back all the jobs that often attract students on summer break.

Much like the rest of the U.S., all of the metro areas in Wisconsin, including Eau Claire, are expected to see large drops in employment this year, stated the latest outlook issued by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

That current forecast expects the Eau Claire area will have 7.5% fewer employed people this year than it did in 2019. The current projection is for a 4.6% rebound in employment next year, but that will still be below what the area had before the coronavirus pandemic began.

Underlying economic measures continue to be strong, Hodek said, indicating the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is continuing.

“It should still be faster than a general recession,” he said of the economic recovery.

But when the economy will no longer feel the drag of the coronavirus is hard to predict. Any future spikes in virus activity, the invention of an effective vaccine and other variables tied to COVID-19 would impact consumer confidence and spending, Hodek said.

“What makes this so different is it’s all linked to the virus,” he said.

Ian Pekol of Eau Claire, who turns 9 today, tried out his early birthday present of a cast net off a fishing pier Wednesday at Half Moon Lake in Carson Park in Eau Claire. Ian caught several small pan fish with his net and his sister Julia Pekol, 5, put them in a bucket to later be released. His mom, Cari Pekol, said Ian loves to fish but wanted a net for his birthday. View more photos at

Almost half in EC County who have had virus are in their 20s

EAU CLAIRE — Young adults in their 20s are increasingly making up a larger share of Eau Claire County’s coronavirus cases, according to county data.

As of Wednesday, almost half of all COVID-19 cases in Eau Claire County are in young adults in their 20s — 45% of the county’s 748 cases.

That proportion has risen from early June, when 20- to 29-year-olds made up around 25% of the county’s cases.

It’s also a contrast with statewide numbers. In Wisconsin as a whole, 20- to 29-year-olds make up 25% of coronavirus cases.

While Eau Claire County’s overall demographics are part of the reason why cases are materializing in more young people, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, outbreaks at various sites are also playing a role.

“We did see, early on, that age group had a number of related cases in some outbreak settings,” she said.

Young adults in their 20s interacting at gatherings also increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

“One of our biggest risk factors for disease spread is social gatherings,” Giese said.

The age breakdown of cases in Eau Claire County is still heavily weighted toward residents between 20 and 49.

Although 45% of county cases have been reported in 20- to 29-year-olds, another 12% of cases are in 30- to 39-year-olds and 11% are in people aged 40 to 49, according to county data.

Statewide data suggest the virus is far more dangerous for the elderly, who are hospitalized and receive intensive care at a significantly higher rate than younger adults with the virus. But young Wisconsin adults haven’t completely escaped hospitalization with COVID-19: 2% of cases in 20- to 29-year-olds in the state have involved hospitalization, or 378 people, according to the state Department of Health Services. Eight Wisconsin residents in that age demographic have died.

While 36 people in Eau Claire County have ever been hospitalized because of the virus, the Health Department has not released the ages of those hospitalized.

New cases

Eleven new people in Eau Claire County tested positive for COVID-19 since Tuesday, Giese said at a Wednesday news conference.

The county saw a 23% decrease in new cases this week compared to last week — 60 total cases between Aug. 17 and Aug. 24, compared to 78 new cases the week prior.

But the county’s test-positivity rate, or the percentage of tests that come back positive, is still at just over 6%, where it’s remained for several weeks.

Countywide, 748 have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Sixty-five of those cases are still active, according to county data.

The state’s seven-day average of new cases has “slowly been dropping for the last four weeks” since it peaked in late July, Giese said Wednesday.

“It’s good news for all of us that our averages continue to go down, but they’re still high compared to spring and early summer,” she added.

Wisconsin COVID statistics

AP centerpiece
17-year-old arrested after 2 killed during unrest in Kenosha

KENOSHA (AP) — A white, 17-year-old police admirer was arrested Wednesday after two people were shot to death during a third straight night of protests in Kenosha over the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.

Kyle Rittenhouse, of Antioch, Illinois, about 15 miles from Kenosha, was taken into custody in Illinois on suspicion of first-degree intentional homicide in the attack Tuesday that was largely captured on cellphone video. The shooting left a third person wounded.

“I just killed somebody,” the gunman, carrying a semi-automatic rifle, could be heard saying at one point during the rampage that erupted just before midnight in the city of 100,000 people midway between Milwaukee and Chicago.

In the wake of the killings, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers authorized the deployment of 500 members of the National Guard to Kenosha, doubling the number of troops. The governor’s office said he is working with other states to bring in additional National Guard members and law officers. Authorities also announced a 7 p.m. curfew, an hour earlier than the night before. Even so, protesters were out Wednesday, night after the curfew.

“A senseless tragedy like this cannot happen again,” the governor, a Democrat, said in a statement. “I again ask those who choose to exercise their First Amendment rights please do so peacefully and safely, as so many did last night. I also ask the individuals who are not there to exercise those rights to please stay home and let local first responders, law enforcement and members of the Wisconsin National Guard do their jobs.”

In Washington, the Justice Department said it is sending in more than 200 federal agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in response to the unrest. The White House said up to 2,000 National Guard troops would be made available.

Blake, 29, was shot in the back seven times on Sunday as he leaned into his SUV, three of his children seated inside. Kenosha police have said little about what happened other than that they were responding to a domestic dispute.

On Wednesday, three days after the shooting, state authorities identified the officer who shot Blake as Rusten Sheskey, a seven-year veteran of the Kenosha Police Department. Sheskey shot Blake while holding onto his shirt after officers first unsuccessfully used a Taser, the Wisconsin Justice Department said.

State agents later recovered a knife from the driver’s side floorboard of the vehicle, authorities said.

No charges were announced, and state officials continue to investigate.

The two people killed during the protests were identified only as a 26-year-old Silver Lake resident and a 36-year-old from Kenosha. The wounded person, a 36-year-old from West Allis, was expected to survive, police said.

“We were all chanting ‘Black lives matter’ at the gas station and then we heard, boom, boom, and I told my friend, ‘‘That’s not fireworks,’” 19-year-old protester Devin Scott told the Chicago Tribune. “And then this guy with this huge gun runs by us in the middle of the street and people are yelling, ‘He shot someone! He shot someone!’ And everyone is trying to fight the guy, chasing him and then he started shooting again.”

Scott said he cradled a victim in his arms, and a woman started performing CPR, but “I don’t think he made it.”

According to witness accounts and video footage, police apparently let the gunman walk past them and leave the scene with a rifle over his shoulder and his hands in the air as members of the crowd were yelling for him to be arrested because he had shot people.

As for how the gunman managed to slip away, Sheriff David Beth described a chaotic, high-stress scene, with lots of radio traffic and people screaming, chanting and running — conditions he said can cause “tunnel vision” among law officers.

Rittenhouse was assigned a public defender in Illinois for a hearing Friday on his transfer to Wisconsin. The public defender’s office had no comment. Under Wisconsin law, anyone 17 or older is treated as an adult in the criminal justice system.

Much of Rittenhouse’s Facebook page is devoted to praising law enforcement, with references to Blue Lives Matter, a movement that supports police. He also can be seen holding an assault rifle.

Other photographs include those of badges of various law enforcement agencies, including the Chicago Police Department. All of the badges have a black line across them — something police officers typically do with black tape when an officer is killed in the line of duty.

In a photograph posted by his mother, he is wearing what appears to be a blue law enforcement uniform as well as the kind of brimmed hat that state troopers wear.

The sheriff told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that militia members or armed vigilantes had been patrolling Kenosha’s streets in recent nights, but he did not know if the gunman was among them. However, video taken before the shooting shows police tossing bottled water from an armored vehicle to what appear to be armed civilians walking the streets. And one of them appears to be the gunman.

“We appreciate you being here,” an officer is heard saying to the group over a loudspeaker.

Before the shooting, the conservative website The Daily Caller conducted a video interview with the suspected gunman in front of a boarded-up business.

“So people are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business,” the young man said. “And part of my job is to also help people. If there is somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle — because I can protect myself, obviously. But I also have my med kit.”

Sam Dirks, 22, from Milwaukee, said he had seen the gunman earlier in the evening, and he was yelling at some of the protesters. “He was definitely very agitated. He was pacing around, just pointing his gun in general. Not necessarily at anyone specifically,” Dirks said.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black, said in an interview with the news program “Democracy Now!” that the shootings were not surprising and that white militias have been ignored for too long.

“How many times across this country do you see armed gunmen, protesting, walking into state Capitols, and everybody just thinks it’s OK?” Barnes said. “People treat that like it’s some kind of normal activity that people are walking around with assault rifles.”

In Wisconsin, it is legal for people 18 and over to openly carry a gun, with no license required.

Witness accounts and video indicate the shootings took place in two stages: The gunman first shot someone at a car lot, then jogged away, fell in the street, and opened fire again as members of the crowd closed in on him.

A witness, Julio Rosas, 24, said that when the gunman stumbled, “two people jumped onto him and there was a struggle for control of his rifle. At that point during the struggle, he just began to fire multiple rounds, and that dispersed people near him.”

“The rifle was being jerked around in all directions while it was being fired,” Rosas said.

On Tuesday, Ben Crump, the lawyer for Blake’s family, said it would “take a miracle” for Blake to walk again. He called for the officer who opened fire to be arrested and for the others involved to lose their jobs.

The shooting was captured on cellphone video and ignited new protests in the U.S. three months after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer touched off a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden posted a video saying he had spoken with Blake’s parents and other family members.

“What I saw on that video makes me sick,” Biden said. “Once again, a Black man, Jacob Blake, has been shot by the police in broad daylight, with the whole world watching.”