Ashley Luthern and Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 10:13 PM EDT Mar 20, 2020
With a statewide shutdown of schools and the number of confirmed cases rising, the impact of coronavirus is now reaching into virtually every part of life in Wisconsin.
And the disruption shows no sign of slowing down.
The same day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, Gov. Tony Evers decided to shutter public and private schools statewide beginning Wednesday to prevent the spread of coronavirus, known as COVID-19. The closure will affect more than 1 million children.
Beyond that, a seemingly endless stream of activities, from major concerts to church socials, have been canceled or postponed. Stores that carried basic staples were either running out or rationing sales. And by late Friday, it had seemingly become more unusual for something to still be going on than to be canceled.
State public health officials also announced Friday the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had more than doubled, which appeared to bring the total to 20, including one person who has since recovered.
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The new cases appeared to include three in Milwaukee County, where county and city officials declared a local public health emergency.
Late Friday, the Milwaukee Health Department confirmed the city’s first case of coronavirus. It was a development expected by local officials.
“This is not the flu,” said Ben Weston, medical services director for Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management.
“This is something different,” he said. “And so somewhere between panic and complacency is preparedness, and that’s what we’re working on.”
The respiratory disease, now designated a global pandemic, can prompt a range of symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after infection, or not at all. The main way it spreads is when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.
The virus can cause severe illness and pneumonia — especially among vulnerable populations like seniors and those with underlying health conditions — and a vaccine is a long way off. Health experts say the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus in the first place.
So far, coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Milwaukee, Racine, Waukesha Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Pierce and Dane counties.
All schools to close Wednesday
The mandatory school closure left parents heading into the weekend scrambling for child care and, in some cases, weighing how it would impact their ability to go to work and pay their bills.
At least 11 other states already had shut down all K-12 schools in an effort to contain or minimize the spread of the virus.
The Wisconsin closure will begin Wednesday and is expected to last through April 5, though officials say they will re-evaluate the date as needed.
“Closing our schools is not a decision I made lightly, but keeping our kids, our educators, our families and our communities safe is a top priority as we continue our work to respond to and prevent further spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin,” Evers said in a statement.
“Kids and families across Wisconsin often depend on schools to access food and care,” he said. “We are going to continue working to do everything we can to ensure kids and families have the resources and support they need while schools are closed.”
Three districts that had not already announced closures — Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha — issued a joint statement shortly after the governor’s, saying they would close effective Monday.
Racine and Kenosha will reopen April 6, unless ordered to do otherwise. Milwaukee Public Schools, the state’s largest district and among the city’s largest employers, will reopen April 14 after its spring break.
The move will have an especially profound effect in Milwaukee, a district that serves 75,000 mostly low-income students of color. Disadvantaged families who rely the most on schools for stable services, such as meals and access to learning materials, will be some of the most negatively affected.
On Friday afternoon, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett told the Journal Sentinel that he understands the governor’s decision-making process.
“I just think we have to have our eyes wide open that there are going to be ramifications for families, for people living in poverty, and hopefully we can find ways to make sure that we address those in the near future,” he said.
He said it’s necessary to come up with creative ways to make sure that children who receive meals at school continue to have that access, and he said it’s difficult for families living in poverty who don’t have a ready internet connection to continue classwork. The other issue, too, is determining who will stay with children whose parents have to work.
He said parents should know that officials are working to find solutions and that there are many ways for the community to be involved — including checking the availability of high school and college students who won’t be in class and can perhaps watch children.
After Milwaukee County declared a public health emergency, the city did the same because of its location within the county.
“That will ramp us up into mandated closures and cancellations,” said Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik, who oversees the city and county efforts.
On Friday, the county announced jury trials have been canceled for the next three weeks, while the jail will book only those charged with the most serious crimes.
Normally, about 2,000 people a day enter the downtown courthouse complex, consisting of the Courthouse, Safety Building and Criminal Justice Facility, joining about 800 employees. The emergency procedures will reduce those numbers dramatically.
Finding the helpers
As the scope of the outbreak sinks in, Wisconsinites are stepping up.
Angela Harris, a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher, has created an online form to allow people to request and offer help. People can volunteer to provide child care, deliver meals, offer transportation, give money and more.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo pledged $100,000 to the Fiserv Forum staff to help offset costs related to lost earnings now that the NBA season has been suspended. Soon after, the Bucks organization said it will match all player donations made in support of part-time arena workers.
UW-Madison created an emergency support fund to help students in difficult financial situations as a result of the coronavirus.
Charter Communications announced Friday morning it will offer free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a subscription.
In the days and weeks to come, there will be more opportunities — and likely a greater need — to help others.
One local food bank has seen a backlog of food that needs to be sorted after a slowdown of volunteers, despite new safety measures.
Feeding America has decreased the size of volunteer groups and increased the frequency of cleaning to encourage more volunteers, said Scott Marshall, the organization’s communications director.
“With people being sent home from work, the potential for people losing wages and schools closing, we’re concerned there’s going be a jump in the need for our services,” he said.
We want to talk to readers whose families are affected by the school closures. Visit bit.ly/WIschoolsclosed to share your story.
Bruce Vielmetti, J.R. Radcliffe, Elliott Hughes, Sophie Carson, Alison Dirr, Mary Spicuzza, Rory Linnane and many more members of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report, as did Madeline Heim of the USA TODAY Network Wisconsin.
Contact Ashley Luthern at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aluthern.