Events Grind to a Halt in Wisconsin Over Coronavirus



By Julian Emerson

March 12, 2020

Trying to stay ahead of the virus, cancellations and concerns spread across Wisconsin

When she first heard about coronavirus concerns, Anna Cardarella thought the virus that was first discovered in China likely didn’t pose an immediate danger to residents in the midwestern United States. 

As more cases of the virus also known as COVID-19 were discovered worldwide, and then in this country, Cardarella, of Eau Claire, took more notice. On Thursday building worries about the contagious virus that has infected more than 1,200 in the U.S. and more than 134,000 and killed nearly 5,000 globally mushroomed into cancellations of events large and small in an effort to try to halt it. 

“Today is the day when it really hit, just how big this really is,” said Anna Cardarella, CEO of Western Dairyland Economic Opportunity Council which provides a variety of services to economically disadvantaged people in four counties in west-central Wisconsin.  “The seriousness of this is all really coming into focus today.”

Cancellations of events and travel, along with recommendations by public health officials to limit large public gatherings hit the state full force on Thursday, a day when Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency in Wisconsin related to coronavirus. The governor’s announcement comes one day after revelations that five Wisconsin residents tested positive for coronavirus after returning home from traveling abroad or to states with community spread of the virus. On Thursday two additional cases were discovered in Dane County. 

In addition, state health officials said Thursday 37 Wisconsin residents have returned to the state after vacationing on a Princess Cruise Ship who after possible exposure to the virus. They will be self-quarantined and monitored by health officials for 14 days.  

Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm addressed mounting confusion and concern about attending large events by recommending events attended by more than 250 people be canceled due to the need to contain the virus.

Palm’s direction and concerns by people across Wisconsin related to spreading or contracting COVID-19 prompted the cancellation of events of all sorts. For instance, one day after the National Basketball Association announced the cancellation of the rest of this season, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association announced it is limiting attendance at remaining boys and girls basketball games.

Similarly, Special Olympics Wisconsin has suspended practices and competitions through April 5. That date could be extended, depending on the state of coronavirus concerns at that time, officials said. United Cerebral Palsy also called off multiple events across Wisconsin previously scheduled to occur in upcoming weeks.

Those shutdowns follow announcements Wednesday by University of Wisconsin System schools that they will offer online courses only in upcoming weeks as they assess the dangers of COVID-19. 

On a more local scale, organizations in many communities throughout Wisconsin called off or delayed meetings, events and gatherings of all sorts, ranging from public meetings to athletic contests to political events. 

For example, a half dozen political events for state Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky scheduled to take place in the next couple of weeks have been called off because of coronavirus concerns, Karofsky’s campaign manager Tyler Hendricks said. Karofsky, a Dane County judge, is challenging incumbent Supreme Court Judge Dan Kelly in the April 7 election. 

State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, announced he has called off upcoming listening sessions around the 31st Senate District he represents because of concerns about coronavirus. Smith said he isn’t especially worried about contracting the virus but “I have to be thinking about everybody else. People could come to one of my events and wind up sick with this.”

Other state legislators said they have cancelled events too, and many visitors to legislative offices have cancelled their appointments as well. “We have noticed a number of lobby days have been voluntarily cancelled,” said B.J. Dernbach, a legislative staff member for the office of state Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva. 

Worries spread

Coronavirus is prompting some Wisconsin residents to stay home to prevent their contracting or spreading the virus. Grocery stores from Hudson to Wausau to La Crosse report many shoppers in recent days stocking up on food and items such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer amid worries the spread of coronavirus will prompt people to remain in their homes. People like Sandy Livingston, who lives in La Crosse, said they plan to stay home as much as possible for the foreseeable future because of worries they might contract, or unknowingly spread, coronavirus. 

“I don’t want to spread this, and I don’t want to give it to anyone else,” she said. “The safest way to do that is to stay home as much as possible.”

Latesia Thompson said she and her sister LaTonya alternate days visiting their 83-year-old mother in a Milwaukee nursing home. They worry they will soon be restricted from visiting her because of fears they unknowingly could be coronavirus carriers and spread the virus to her. 

“Of course we don’t want to get her sick,” Latesia Thompson said, noting her mother has a compromised immune system. “That’s the last thing we want. But it would be so hard not to see her. I would worry, for sure.”

Gordy Bischoff is a social, affable personality known for his skills making and rebuilding guitars. But Bischoff, who lives south of Eau Claire with his wife Alice, has decided to cut out as many social interactions as possible because of concerns his wife, who has asthma, could contract coronavirus. 

Bischoff said he has taken precautions “in order to support and help protect my wife” that include cancelling upcoming performances of the Eau Claire Ukulele Klub of which he is a member.

The virus also poses a risk to people who are homeless, Cardarella said. Many who live without homes lack good nutrition and have compromised health, she said, putting them at special risk of contracting coronavirus. The close proximity of homeless shelters also is a concern, she said. 

“We are very worried about our homeless population,” Cardarella said. “They are often especially vulnerable.” 

Business, travel concerns

While owners of many restaurants, taverns, stores and other Wisconsin businesses that rely on foot traffic said customer flow has remained steady in recent days, they anticipate customer numbers declining as more coronavirus cases are detected. 

Typically business at the Brewing Projekt picks up this time of year, as the weather warms and people are eager to get out and about after spending most of winter inside, owner William Glass said. But he expects the number of customers — often 100 or more at a time on weekends — frequenting his taproom in Eau Claire to drop sharply because of coronavirus-related concerns.

“We wholly expect a slowdown right when the season should be picking up,” Glass said, noting he expects a conference in San Antonio he plans to attend in April that will attract about 15,000 people to be cancelled. 

Spring usually represents a busy time at Landmark Creamery in Paoli, south of Verona, a time when business begins to pick up “after the post-holiday lull,” owner Anna Landmark said. But she worries growing fears about contracting coronavirus will prompt people to stay home and not shop at her cheese-making business. 

“We are definitely worried about a financial hit,” Landmark said, noting her company is implementing extra sanitizing measures to protect employees and customers from possibly contracting the virus. 

Others said they worry that work shutdowns related to coronavirus could prompt schools, and daycares, to close, leaving parents in a lurch seeking child care. Jodie Arnold, of Chippewa Falls, said she would rely on her mother to watch her children, but that would “be extremely taxing” for her mom, who is older. Other parents said they have nobody lined up to watch their children if needed. 

For still others, coronavirus fears mean cancelled travels. Abby George, a student at UW-River Falls, was scheduled to leave next week to study abroad in Ghana. That trip was cancelled, and in-person coursework at the school has been cancelled through at least April 10, meaning classes presumably will be taught online.

“With labs and hands-on classes, this is definitely not the education they’ve paid for,” George’s mother, Patty, who lives in rural Mondovi, said. 

Eau Claire resident Jan Frase’s older daughter and her husband live in Germany, where three regions have been designated as high-concentration areas of coronavirus. They cancelled their flight to the U.S. for a wedding and “have advised us to take this seriously,” Frase said. 

She said she is concerned about the virus but hopes for the best.

“Hopefully, two or three weeks of hunkering down will slow the spread of cases,” she said. 




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