Milwaukee Officials Warn Coronavirus Likely Headed to Milwaukee
Frank Zeidler Municipal Building in Milwaukee, home of the city's Health Department. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Mayor urges residents to remain calm, but says he’s concerned virus will spread from Chicago.

Milwaukee officials are covering all bases as the coronavirus seems poised to spread to the area, with a testing facility established, quarantine protocol set in place, and the potential fate of the Democratic National Convention being discussed.

“The keyword is preparation, with the hope that none of this is ever going to be necessary in our community,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said during a Sunday press conference.

Seven cases have been confirmed in Illinois, all in the greater Chicago area, according to a New York Times database

With the nation’s third-largest city being just about 90 miles south of Wisconsin’s biggest city, Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik said it appears to be a case of “when, not if” a Milwaukee resident will be infected.

Chicago has reacted swiftly to the virus, with schools closing, events being canceled, and business altering practices, according to the Chicago Tribune

“That heightens the concern that we have,” Barrett said.

Worldwide, the number of cases had climbed to nearly 110,000 in 105 countries, according to numbers released Monday by the World Health Organization. Nearly 4,000 infected people had died. The United States accounts for more than 500 of those cases and 22 deaths, according to the New York Times’ database.

Last week, Milwaukee set up a testing facility and ran two tests that came back negative for the virus, Kowalik said. The lab has a capacity to run up to 30 tests per day, she said. It is one of two testing sites in the state. The other is in Madison.

Kowalik said if a case is confirmed and the infected person would not self-quarantine, she would use a state statute to impose mandatory isolation. She said it is the same statute that allows for health departments to isolate people in a tuberculosis outbreak or temporarily shutdown a restaurant.

Asian Americans, particularly those of Chinese descent, have been targets of racism and misinformation as the virus spreads from its origin country of China. Kowalik spoke against it, stressing that “the disease can impact any one of us.”

“Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear and anger toward a group of ordinary people instead of the disease that’s causing the problem,” she said.

President Donald Trump, who has consistently downplayed the virus’ significance throughout the course of the outbreak, signed an $8 billion funding package to fight its spread last week. He has claimed “fake news media” is raising alarm to make him “look bad.”

“It’s really time for us to behave like responsible citizens and adults,” said U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, who attended the press conference. “This is serious stuff.”

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin was one of several lawmakers to introduce federal legislation on Monday that would require employers to provide 14 days of sick leave and allow employees to accrue seven more days during public health emergencies. The proposal came as the stock market tanked once again as the outbreak continued.

Asked about conservative skepticism of the danger the deadly virus poses, Moore said, “this is not an $8 billion hoax.” She called the spending a good start to mitigating the outbreak.

Barrett stressed that Milwaukee officials want to be proactive and that the press conference should not be a cause for panic. He urged residents to remain calm.

“If we were to do nothing, and if the disease were to come to this community, we would be skewered for doing nothing,” Barrett said. “We are going to prepare. We need to prepare. We must prepare.”

In the wake of the cancellation of the annual South by Southwest festival that last year drew more than 400,000 attendees, Barrett was also asked about whether he is concerned of a potential cancellation of the Democratic National Convention.

“We’ve had conversations with them, but nothing to report there,” Barrett said. 

Johnson Controls, an international HVAC company headquartered in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale, has imposed a company-wide precautionary ban on “non-customer and non-business-critical air travel,” said Fraser Engerman, director of global media relations. 

The company has more than 105,000 employees across 2,000 global locations, but none has tested positive for coronavirus, nor are any employees currently in any sort of isolation, Engerman said.