Safer at Home extended through Memorial Day

State seeks to ramp up testing, tracing to make it safer to open up later

YouTube Screen Grab of Gov. Tony Evers
Gov. Tony Evers speaks to reporters in a telephone news conference on Thursday, April 16. (Screen grab from YouTube)

Citing science and health experts, Gov. Tony Evers ordered Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to extend Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order until 8 am on Tuesday May, 26.

Republican leaders in the Legislature said they planned to explore a legal challenge to the extension, but the governor’s office chief legal counsel said it was within the regular authority of the DHS secretary.

Evers announced the extension Thursday afternoon. “We aren’t out of the woods just yet,” he said. “As I’ve said all along, we are going to rely on the science and public health experts to guide us through this challenge.” 

Coming out of the current social distancing rules will need to be a gradual process, Evers said at a DHS media briefing Thursday afternoon: “We can’t think of this like flipping a light switch,” he said. “It’s like turning a dial.”

Andrea Palm
Secretary-designee Andrea Palm, state Department of Health Services

Wisconsin needs to be wary about causing a “second wave” of the virus, said Palm. In order to relax social distancing measures more widely, she explained, the state needs to put in place much more widespread testing. To do that, there needs to be an expanded health care workforce to conduct contact tracing in order to identify anyone with whom an infected person has been in close contact. 

“We have already increased lab capacity from 500 to almost 7,000 tests a day,” Palm said. “But we are still not testing enough to facilitate the kind of contact tracing that we’ll need to do moving forward to know the true prevalence of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.”

Healthcare workers who do the testing and contact tracing will need personal protective equipment (PPE) so they can carry out their work safely. And the state needs to be able to isolate or quarantine everyone who test positive and their immediate contacts who may also be carrying the virus.

“We have begun this work but we will need a more robust system to put Wisconsin in position to be able to actively and aggressively manage this virus until we have a vaccine or effective medical intervention,” Palm said. “By identifying potential cases and then containing the spread, we will reduce the number of people infected and continue to protect our front line health care workers, the healthcare system and to save lives.”

COVID-19 is caused by “a highly contagious virus,” Palm said. “It can infect people even if the level of exposure is low, and can transmit even if the infected person is not showing any symptoms. Its high infection rate means it travels easily between people, and because people  travel easily between geographic areas, the virus can spread easily between communities.”

Regional agreement

Also on Thursday, Wisconsin joined together with six other states in a regional multistate pact, similar to those on the east and west coasts, to work together on curbing and containing COVID-19, as well as approaching the reopening of the states jointly. The pact includes Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

In making the announcement the governors of those states put out a joint statement saying they would work together on lifting stay-at-home restrictions in a manner that prioritizes workers’ health. “We look forward to working with experts and taking a fact-based, data-driven approach to reopening our economy in a way that protects families from the spread of COVID-19.”

A grim forecast from a few weeks ago — when DHS officials said that without the Safer at Home order the number of infections could explode to 22,000 by April 8 and the number of deaths could reach 400 to more than three times that amount — has been avoided because the public is taking Safer at Home seriously, Evers and Palm said.

By contrast, as of Thursday afternoon, DHS reported 3,875 confirmed cases in the state, including 197 deaths. About 29% of the people infected have been hospitalized. 

Extended order details

The extended Safer at Home order lengthens the ban on certain activities and opens up other activities and businesses starting on April 24, so long as they meet strict compliance requirements for social distancing, increased disinfecting and containing the virus’ spread.

The following are contained in the new order: 

  • Wisconsin K-12 schools, both public and private, are closed for the rest of the school year. 
  • Golf courses can re-open with strict distancing rules. Golf carts are prohibited.
  • Public libraries may offer curb-side pick-up of books and other materials. 
  • Non-essential businesses are allowed such basic operations as deliveries, mailings and curb-side pick up. 
  • Arts and craft stores can expand curb-side pick-up of materials necessary to make face masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE). 
  • Local health officials may close public parks and open spaces if there are problems with social distancing or vandalism.
  • Exterior landscaping or other lawn care or construction that is non-essential, esthetic or optional can be performed so long as it is done by one person. 
  • Travel: Just don’t, unless necessary, including no travel to cabins or second homes or out-of-state.

Further details of the Safer at Home order can be found here.

Wisconsin Economic Development Commission (WEDC) CEO Missy Hughes, who also took part in Thursday’s media briefing, acknowledged the tens of thousands of small businesses of various kinds that had been set back because they had to shut down or cut back drastically in response to the Safer at Home order.

The WEDC is working to help businesses secure aid as well as  counseling them on how to adjust to social distancing requirements. And while businesses may be shut down or nearly so, they have much they can do while waiting to reopen, said Hughes.

“We need to be looking at work flows and our work spaces and make sure that we’ve been able to adapt and include things like social distancing and protection and cleaning on a regular basis, to make sure that as workers and customers come back into the workplace, they feel confident and they want to participate in that business and be there,” she said. “Now is the time to be focused on that.”

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Mixed reaction

The reaction to Thursday’s news was mixed. People concerned about containing the spread of COVID-19 endorsed the extension.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which a week ago put out a statement calling on Evers to make plans to lift Safer at Home on its original April 24 expiration date, expressed “disappointment” at the extension, however. The business lobby has been pushing for a plan that would open up parts of the state where the number of confirmed infections have been low.

Sen. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon) issued a statement calling on the Senate to fire Palm by rejecting her nomination as DHS secretary, which has yet to be confirmed.

In a joint statement, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said the extension “goes too far” and that they were “planning to act with legal and legislative options” in response to it.

“The Safer at Home order’s main intent was to flatten the curve, which we have successfully done to this point, not devastate our families,” the statement said.

However, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief of the communicable disease bureau at DHS, said at the media briefing that it was too soon to say whether the illness had peaked in Wisconsin, and that was an assessment that couldn’t be made until well after the fact.

Ryan Nilsestuen, chief legal counsel for the governor’s office, said that the order was within Palm’s ordinary statutory authority as the head of DHS and was not dependent on Evers’ Health Emergency declaration, which expires May 12.

Both the lawmakers’ and the WMC statements critical of the decision complained about what the authors characterized as the absence of a plan on the part of the administration — making no reference to the details that were laid out in the briefing for expanding testing, tracing and related steps to ensure greater public safety as the state economy opens.

On social media, however, the most widespread reaction seemed to be unbridled rejoicing that — with restrictions and social distancing — golf courses will soon be open.