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Children's Museum of Eau Claire to close indefinitely

In a year that is no fun for many Americans, play time is about to end even at a place created for children to have fun.

The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire announced Tuesday it will once again close to the public indefinitely at 3 p.m. Saturday.

The museum previously was closed from March 16 through July 6 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael McHorney, CMEC’s executive director, said he is disappointed the museum has to close but indicated the decision is necessary for financial reasons.

“We reopened to serve the community. I don’t know if we would have reopened if the decision was based purely on financial reasons. We knew it would be tough at first, but we didn’t think it would be this bad to be honest,” McHorney said, referring to low attendance since the museum reopened this month with occupancy limits, reservation requirements and a mandatory mask policy for all guests age 6 and older.

Calling attendance “not even close to what we hoped it would be,” McHorney speculated that the number of visitors has been negatively affected by a combination of coronavirus-related factors, including safety concerns about indoor activities, the challenge of getting children to wear face coverings and alternative summertime options for children to experience outdoor play.

During July 2020, CMEC is losing an average of $1,272 per day. At that pace, CMEC would run out of cash to operate around the middle of January 2021. CMEC officials had hoped to operate at about 50% of earned revenue (mostly from admission fees, memberships and birthday parties) compared with 2019, but indicated that in July the facility has earned only 14% of the revenue it took in during the same month last year.

“By making this strategic move immediately, we hope to enter the beginning of 2021 with enough cash on hand to operate at a time when children and grown-ups may need us more than they do now,” McHorney said. “We decided it was prudent to close and preserve our cash so we can get through the long haul.”

Board Chairwoman Char Gurney backed the move, saying the purpose of closing now is to ensure the museum in the future “can continue to offer the positive experience that CMEC visitors have grown to love.”

CMEC plans to reduce operating expenses by 62% to stay afloat. Museum officials hope to retain five salaried employees through participating in the state Department of Workforce Development’s Work Share program. If not approved, CMEC’s board of directors may have to determine additional reductions. The museum started 2020 with seven full-time and seven part-time employees.

“CMEC’s employees are selfless and through this pandemic their selflessness has been on full display,” McHorney said in a news release. “All employees changed their day-to-day roles from what they were to primarily cleaning and disinfecting the museum this last month to allow children to play and be safe.”

When salaried employees were asked, not one of them felt the museum should remain open given its financial difficulties, he said.

“Without being asked, every single one of them offered up their position first, if it came to that, instead of one of their colleagues having to lose their position,” McHorney said.

CMEC officials said their focus is to be good stewards of the assets entrusted to them by the community and to encourage play in different ways, such as through virtual programming, while the building is closed.

By the end of August, the museum reported that information will be provided to patrons with annual memberships on how their membership will be structured moving forward.

“CMEC will be here to serve the community when it is a better environment for social play rather than social distancing,” the museum said in the release, while also encouraging community residents to continue to follow the lead of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and to wear masks whenever in public to help control the spread of the virus.

The temporary closing is not expected to affect the museum’s ongoing capital campaign to raise money to build a new facility on vacant land directly east of the city’s parking ramp in the North Barstow area.

“That project is still moving forward,” McHorney said. “The break ground date is probably next spring, although that all depends on the situation.”

Eau Claire working on city mask policy

Eau Claire leaders will talk in two weeks about a city policy regarding the use of face masks in public places during the coronavirus pandemic.

Though not yet stating whether it would be a mandate or not, City Manager Dale Peters said he is working on a policy to present to the City Council for consideration next month.

“It is our plan to work on a recommendation going forward before your next meetings in early August,” he said.

The council’s next scheduled meetings are on the night of Aug. 10 to hear from the public and the afternoon of Aug. 11 to vote on items on its agenda.

Peters is speaking with a statewide task force on mask use strategies to find a policy that would be the best approach for Eau Claire. It would need to would be functionally enforceable, meet legal standards, and maximize public input and legitimacy, he said.

Two council members made their stances clear on the issue of requiring people to wear face masks to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“I am 100% in support of a mask mandate,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilman Andrew Werthmann echoed Emmanuelle’s stance on wearing masks. He said communities that are proactive with mask mandates and other recommendations from public health officials have been able to return to “some sense of normalcy.”

Werthmann contended that a mask mandate would help the local economy, allow people to stay in good health and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“I think long-term we’re going to have to take that additional step of mandating a mask order,” he said.

Emmanuelle asked the top local public health official whether the city should act even sooner on adopting a strong policy on mask use.

Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said that based on the number of coronavirus cases, health care facility capacity, other metrics and behavior of people in the community, that immediate action was not needed Tuesday.

“At this point in time — today — I am not coming to you based on my public health ethic and responsibility to say we have to do something now,” Giese said.

The community has time to work through this and come to a conclusion that will be supported by residents, she said.

But Giese did add that if COVID-19 figures do take a sharp turn before the mid-August council meetings, she would alert city leaders on actions that would be needed immediately.

On July 14, the council approved a resolution encouraging residents to wear face masks, but did not make it mandatory.

At Monday night’s council meeting, residents representing dueling petitions for and against a face mask mandate spoke to city leaders.

Declaration extended again

Eau Claire will remain under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic at least until late August.

In an 11-0 vote Tuesday night, the City Council extended an emergency declaration to Aug. 25. This is the fourth time the city has extended the declaration, which was originally enacted on March 17 when COVID-19 became a global pandemic.

The declaration gives the city manager additional authority to take certain actions without first requiring the council’s approval.

One of the recent actions Peters took under the expanded powers was to waive late fees for residents on their water bills through the end of the year.

Using Hobbs Ice Center as a temporary homeless shelter starting in April also was another response made possible through the emergency declaration.

The city is working on an agreement with Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services to designate another facility as a shelter, Peters said, allowing Hobbs to resume serving its intended use for ice skating and hockey.

The city intends to relocate those who have been staying at the municipal ice center by the end of August, he said, so it could return to regular use by Sept. 19.

Other business

Also during Tuesday’s meeting:

• A five-year plan for city projects was approved 11-0 by the council. Among next year’s spending is $350,000 for police department video technology, including the adoption of body-worn cameras for officers.

• L.E. Phillips Senior Center, 1616 Bellinger St., won city approvals needed for its expansion project. Construction is expected to begin in early September and take eight to 10 months to complete.

• Eau Claire will apply for up to $500,000 in Idle Sites grant money from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to help demolish the defunct Kmart, 2424 E. Clairemont Ave., and prepare the land for a Hy-Vee grocery store.

• The council voted 11-0 to sell a 4.2-acre site with Mount Washington ski jump for $1 to the Flying Eagles Ski Club.

• A city Safe Routes to Parks plan was adopted through an 11-0 vote of the council.