WED AM News: City grants and loans a business lifeline; Lawmakers, trade groups offer solutions to UI backlog

— Wisconsin cities across the state offered coronavirus relief grants to local businesses to make up for losses during the economic shutdown. 

In southeast Wisconsin, Tu Casa Mexican Restaurant of West Lincoln Avenue, Milwaukee was one recipient of 548 established small businesses that received a RESTART grant from the city.

Milwaukee distributed more than $4.1 million through the federal CARES Act starting in July. Eligible businesses had 20 or fewer employees and $2 million in annualized income. The grants were up to $15,000 for personal protective equipment, physical changes to the business to improve safety or replenishing perishable inventory.

Tu Casa was awarded $12,785, according to manager Matt Roman Lopez. 

“We applied to help us stay open and provide safe services to our customers and a safe place to work at for our employees,” he said. 

The restaurant bought floor stickers, posters, sanitation equipment and PPE for staff, which boosted consumer confidence as well as limited service interruption due to sick employees, Lopez explained. 

Read the full story at 

— Dennis Delie, an employee representative of the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, argued that a lot of the responsibility falls on the Legislature to improve the Department of Workforce Development’s UI system.

DWD’s software system called COBOL, which stands for Common Business Oriented Language, is 50-years-old. Despite the state nearly tripling the number of people working to take and process claims, there hasn’t been enough progress on the backlog. 

“There’s a lot of people out there that waited a long time. I’m not so sure it’s testament to the people who were running the department,” said Delie, who serves as secretary-treasurer at Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. 

Monday’s update from the agency showed over 94,000 people were still awaiting checks.

“I understand that the buck stops somewhere, and the citizens of Wisconsin deserve a system that is efficient and gets those benefits out on a timely basis,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot of shared responsibility in how that happens and it doesn’t all fall on the people in the department, a lot of it falls on our Legislature and there’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Delie attributes the backlog to DWD’s “antiquated system” which when combined with such an influx of claims, created a “perfect storm.” He also noted the waiting period and general rules and regulations surrounding eligibility that “although necessary,” are “complications” that slow down claim resolution.

“I really think we need an influx of investment into that whole system and department to upgrade that and bring that to a point where it can handle this sort of emergency,” he said. “It could be a health emergency again; it could be any kind of financial downturn that could trigger this sort of spike in claims. We need an updated system.”

See more comments on the UI system: 

— Gov. Tony Evers has extended his mask mandate while declaring a new public health emergency due to a COVID-19 case spike.

Both orders are effective immediately and last 60 days. The guv’s previous mask mandate was set to expire Monday. 

“We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campus. We need folks to start taking this seriously, and young people especially—please stay home as much as you are able, skip heading to the bars, and wear a mask whenever you go out,” Evers said.

The order requires Wisconsin residents ages 5 and older to wear a face covering when they are indoors or in an enclosed space with anyone outside their household.

The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a lawsuit in Polk County this summer seeking to overturn the previous public health emergency that Evers declared. It argues the guv didn’t have the power to issue a new public health emergency declaration without approval from the GOP-controlled state Legislature. The suit, however, didn’t include a request for an injunction preventing enforcement of the mask mandate that Evers issued in addition to the health emergency.

Earlier this month, the case was assigned to a judge. But the state had not yet responded to the original action, according to online records. The deadline to do so is next month.

WILL said it was reviewing the new public health emergency order but signaled opposition.

“Governor Evers and his team believe the presence of COVID-19 supersedes the rule of law and our state constitution,” said Rick Esenberg, WILL’s president and general counsel. “They are wrong. Letting this gross abuse of power stand is not an option.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald slammed Evers’ new mask mandate as “not worth the paper it’s printed on,” and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called it “obviously illegal.”

But their separate statements were silent on calls from some of their GOP members to reconvene the Legislature for a vote that would overturn the new order.

After Evers issued the original mask mandate on July 30, Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said his caucus had the votes to overturn it. But Vos, R-Rochester, instead focused on the legal challenge he expected from private groups.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce President and CEO Kurt Bauer said that the organization has continued to encourage the use of masks in confined spaces — a recommendation laid out by the CDC and OSHA.

“However, WMC renews its yet unanswered request for the governor and DHS to clarify and amend the mask order in recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every Wisconsin business,” Bauer said.

In August, WMC sent a letter to Gov. Evers requesting clarification for the business community and suggested changes to the mask mandate. 

See the letter:  

— Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said it wasn’t clear from the order who will enforce the fine of up to $200 for not following the mask mandate.

“As with the last mandate, there’s no enforcement provision,” he said.

The trade group takes no position on the mandate, and Scholz added that it’s directed at individuals, not retailers.

“There’s nothing in there that says any business in Wisconsin has to require the customers to wear or give their customers the option not to wear a mask,” he said.

The Wisconsin Grocers Association, Wisconsin Hospital Association and Wisconsin Medical Society were three of seven groups that launched a COVID-19 mitigation public service announcement earlier this month.

One of the coronavirus prevention steps included wearing a mask.

“As we have advocated through several public service announcements and television ads and will continue doing in the coming weeks, WHA strongly supports the statewide use of masks and other precautions meant to impede the spread of COVID, keep our communities and businesses open and safe and health care accessible for all patients,” said WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding. “WHA strongly supports these simple steps we can all take, regardless of what happens in the courts.”

Medical Society CEO Bud Chumbley said that behaviors, such as wearing a mask, can control the spread of coronavirus as the state experiences increasing case numbers.

“We strongly urge everyone to wear masks, maintain social distancing and continue to wash hands often and thoroughly,” he said. “We should also keep up with the latest science on how the virus spreads so we can act in ways that minimize exposure. As the influenza season approaches, getting a flu shot is another smart, proactive action we can take to better protect ourselves and each other.”

The coalition also includes the Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Realtors Association, Wisconsin Restaurant Association and Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin.

See the coalition’s TV ad:

See the guv’s release:

— Health officials have pointed to the start of the school year and in-person social gatherings as reasons for the surge in cases among the 18-24 age group within the past month.

DHS preliminary data show that those in the 18-24 age range had 23,990 confirmed cases by the week of Sept. 13. That’s an increase of 2,842 cases over the week before and a higher count than any other age group. It also has a case rate five times higher than any other age group at 43.9 cases per 1,000 people. 

In announcing yesterday’s order, Gov. Tony Evers noted eight Wisconsin cities were among the top 20 in the U.S. for the rise in COVID-19 cases. Of those eight, six are home to a UW System campus.

UW System President Tommy Thompson in response to Evers’ order again touted the “robust testing program” happening at system schools. He claimed students on campuses throughout the state take COVID-19 tests at a rate up to 10 times higher than average state residents.  

“We have been working to create a culture of responsibility among our students, including a mandate to wear masks, while pursuing more aggressive actions as necessary,” he said in a statement. “Higher education is essential, and we are gratified to see students responding and cases decreasing on several campuses.” 

So far three system campuses — Madison, La Crosse and River Falls — have temporarily returned to entirely online instruction due to coronavirus outbreaks. 

— DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said that the increase in cases is not confined to college campuses.

Wisconsin is experiencing near-exponential growth of the coronavirus pandemic as the seven-day average of daily cases has risen from 678 on Aug. 31 to 1,838 yesterday. This is “in part” driven by infections in the 18-24 age range, according to the guv’s release.

“Students come to these campuses from across the state, and we worry about the effect their return from an area with a high infection rate could have on their home communities,” Palm said. “That is why it is imperative we take action to curb transmission now — to protect residents of Wisconsin in every corner of the state.”

Most respiratory viruses see their peak activity in Wisconsin between late fall and early spring, warned Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the state’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases.

“We need to do everything we can now to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prepare for the winter,” he said. “That is why we need to continue wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. It is also why we encourage everyone to get a flu shot this year; the flu shot cannot protect you from COVID-19, but by helping protect you from the flu, it helps strengthen our COVID-19 response here in Wisconsin by preserving hospital and testing capacity.” 

— Wisconsin added 1,672 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, bringing the seven-day average for daily confirmed cases to 1,838.

Only two days in the past two weeks have had a daily case total under 1,000. Recent record highs have resulted in a steady increase of the seven-day average for daily confirmed cases.

The daily rate of positive tests fell to 13.3 percent from 18.7 percent after the state recorded 12,537 tests yesterday. The seven-day positive test average rose to 16.7 percent from 16.4 percent. That average continues to rise further from state health officials’ preferred rate of 5 percent or less. 

The state reports 104,170 cumulative COVID-19 cases with 88,131 of those people recovered. About 1.2 percent of patients have died from the virus, a declining percentage.

Wisconsin added seven new COVID-19 deaths yesterday, bringing the total to 1,251.

Counties reporting deaths include: Milwaukee (525), Racine (94), Waukesha (85), Kenosha (65), Brown (60), Dane (41), Walworth (34), Rock (32), Washington (32), Outagamie (28), Winnebago (23), Grant (19), Ozaukee (19), Waupaca (19), Marathon (14), Sheboygan (15) and Fond du Lac (13), Dodge (10), Clark (8), St. Croix (8), Jefferson (7), Marinette (7), Eau Claire (6) and Pierce (6).

Adams, Barron, Forest, Oconto, Portage, Richland and Wood counties report four deaths each, while Burnett, Door, Sauk and Taylor counties report three deaths each.

Ashland, Buffalo, Calumet, Columbia, Green, Juneau, Kewaunee, La Crosse, Langlade, Manitowoc, Monroe, Oneida, Polk, Trempealeau and Waushara counties report two deaths each.

Bayfield, Florence, Iron, Jackson, Lincoln, Marquette, Rusk, Sawyer, Shawano, Vilas and Washburn counties report one death each.

Click here for more coronavirus resources and updates: 


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