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Ashland County weighs mandatory mask rule

Ashland County board members likely will consider a county-wide mask mandate at their next meeting following an ambiguous Monday order by local health departments.

The health departments of Ashland and Bayfield counties issued an emergency advisory "requiring face coverings" for anyone indoors following an alarming increase in local coronavirus cases.

But local officials agreed Tuesday that the advisory is for now not an order, even as local coronavirus cases shot upward again.

The Red Cliff band on Tuesday posted a notice that an asymptomatic resident of the New Hope housing complex had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing all residents of the complex to be tested. That and other local cases recorded Tuesday pushed Bayfield County's known patients to nine, up from seven over the weekend. Ashland County remained at eight known patients.

Just two weeks earlier, the counties had a total count of five positive tests. But then summer visitors arrived and local events began with no restrictions, led by a an Ashland hockey camp that drew families from three states and that now is linked to at least five of the new cases.

The staffs at two local restaurants patronized by hockey camp participants had to be quarantined after the event (see related story on page 5A.)

The sharp increase in local cases prompted Monday's release by Bay Area health officers announcing new mask requirements.

But Ashland County Administrator Clark Schroeder told the Daily Press Tuesday that

he doesn't believe health officials now have the authority to require masks. He believes the "requirement" is really more of a guideline — for now.

Ashland County Board Chairman Dick Pufall agreed and said his board will have to consider its own mandate, given the recent surge in cases.

Bayfield County Administrator Mark AbelesAlison likewise said in an email Tuesday that the advisory issued Monday was "a serious recommendation of action by Public Health," and not a mandate.

The advisory "stipulates that everyone age 5 and older wear a face covering or mask when in any enclosed build ing where other people, except for members of the person's own household or living unit could be present. This advisory applies to all of Ashland and Bayfield County."

"Public health research shows that face coverings are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Given the number of infections in our counties and surrounding area, as well as the multitude of visitors coming to our area, we need to all be wearing face coverings every time we leave the house," Elizabeth Szot, Ashland County health officer, said in the Monday release. She did not immediately return calls seeking clarification on the advisory.

The Bay Area is not alone in recording new coronavirus cases. Surrounding counties also are seeing surges following the arrival of summer visitors; Iron County as of Monday had 17 reported cases; Douglas County stood at 61, and Sawyer County recorded 15.

"We do not take this advisory lightly," Sara Wartman, Bayfield County health officer, said in the release. "It is on every person in our communities to do better. People should assume that everyone wearing a mask is doing it to protect you and themselves. If someone is not wearing a mask, assume they are genuinely not able to do so."

The order says everyone should wear a face covering over their nose and mouth when in public, which includes in businesses, health care settings, waiting in line and on public transpor tation. It also says people should wear masks while in someone else's home and exempts those with physical, mental or developmental conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.

Szot said Monday that at least four of Ashland County's five new cases were connected to the hockey camp at the Bay Area Civic Center. She said the fifth case involves a resident who traveled away from the Bay Area and contracted the virus while out of town.

The Civic Center has not returned multiple calls from the Daily Press seeking comment on why and how the hockey event was scheduled. But as of Tuesday, it had canceled all events on its calendar, from weddings and health expos to a gun show and some meetings.

At least 13 COVID-19 cases in both adults and children have been tied to the hockey event that drew participants from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to Ashland. One person who came down with the illness was a resident of Bayfield County who became sick after attending the tournament.

Wartman urged anyone who may have attended the tournament to get tested for COVID-19 infection.

She said local health departments were being stretched to their limits for contact tracing because so many suspected coronavirus carriers had been out in public visiting busy bars, restaurants and retail stores.

Families involved in the hockey tournament are known to have been to several local restaurants and hotels, but health officials have not identified those businesses. A visitor from downstate Wisconsin who was in Port Wing over the Fourth of July weekend spent time that weekend at the Port Bar & Restaurant before returning home and being hospitalized with COVID-19, health officials said.

The local numbers come amid a nationwide explosion in positive coronavirus cases that has followed as states reopened their economies with few or no safety mandates such as required mask-wearing. Many states and some Wisconsin counties now are adopting mandatorymask ordinances.

Ashland's downtown wins Main Street designation
Added expertise will help local development


Jackson Kyser, owner of Jack's Burger Barn in downtown Ashland was like many downtown businesses hard hit by the enforced COVID-19 shutdown.

He's open again, albeit with changes that reflect the new reality of retail business: partitions between booths, employees wearing masks and hand sanitizer offered prominently for customers. It is all part of bringing business back to Main Street.

Kyser is enthusiastic about anything that will help boost downtown business. That's why he has agreed to serve as a member of a newly formed board that has just earned Ashland a designation as Wisconsin's newest Main Street community.

The Wisconsin Main Street Program was launched in 1987 and now includes 34 communities. It is operated by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and which provides technical resources and assistance to help downtowns revitalize themselves. Ashland now is the only Main Street community north of Eau Claire.

"What I like about the program is that the city and the chamber of commerce are working together. We all have different resources, let's combine them," Kyser said.

Ashland's designation could not have come at a better time, given the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus shutdown.

"It's important that the city, the chamber and the local businesses support each other because we have been through crazy times, unprecedented. It's important to pull together the local stakeholders because it gives everybody a dose of reality. It will give everyone a full scope of what things are like in the business world and what the city and chamber are dealing with. I think it's going to be really good," Kyser said.

In addition to enhanced communications between city partners, the program will give the city professional marketing expertise intended to help sell Ashland to outsiders and locals alike.

"With the designation comes access to Wisconsin Main Street resources and assistance, along with technical assistance for free," said Ashland Director of Planning and Devel opment Megan McBride, who with Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary McPhetridge organized the city's application for the program. "This is the type of stuff that generally the city would budget for each year, to be able to hire a consultant to do specific projects."

McBride said as a part of the Main Street Program, Ashland is eligible for technical assistance for three larger projects, as well as help on a regular basis for things like business startups, retention and recruitment expertise, facade renderings for downtown businesses and property owners, and other assistance designed to help better promote downtown to developers outside the area, helping to fill vacant storefronts.

Possibilities for the three larger projects include a downtown housing study and a downtown master plan, she said.

McBride said the board, which still is seeking members, would help manage the city's facadeimprovement program and would assist with the gathering of information about the downtown, including such items as square footages of commercial space, lease rates, residential capacity.

The Main Street Program also will forge partnerships between the city, the chamber, Ashland Area Development Corp., downtown businesses and other downtown stakeholders like residents.

That kind of close working relationship could help the development of projects such as downtown lighting that have been talked about for years but have never achieved critical mass for moving forward, she said.

Those possibilities excite another Main Street Program board member, Kevin Porter, an Ashland real estate agent. He said the fact that stakeholders will now be communi cating with each other is important.

"As long as you are focusing on things that are of value to you and other people, it can't do anything but help," he said. "When people come together for a good purpose, good things happen."

McPhetridge said the technical expertise available to local leaders will help the city in a variety of ways, including planning for streetscapes, lighting, housing analysis, downtown infrastructure planning and real estate development.

"That is what is going to help the city most of all, because we don't have the manpower to do these things. But Main Street can offer it," she said. "The most important thing is that it will allow us to help sustain the businesses that we have and then we can start creating an environment for new businesses and entrepreneurs."

Porter said the expertise offered through the Main Street Program was "fantastic."

"This is what these people do for a living. They have connections and knowledge that we just wouldn't have access to without the program. And to have that for free is the difference between having a roadmap and flying blind," he said. "We have a lot of goals in Ashland; to have somebody help us with those is a really nice gift."

Line 5 reroute tentatively approved

The Department of Natural Resources said it has tentatively approved permits with some modifications for Enbridge Energy Co.'s proposed reroute of its Line 5 pipeline.

Multiple environmental groups say the Canadian energy firm hasn't provided enough information for state regulators to decide whether to grant waterway and wetlands permits. Regulators and Enbridge say details have yet to be submitted and reviewed.

Enbridge is moving about 40 mile of Line 5 outside the Bad River Indian Reservation in Ashland and Iron counties. Its new route would cross more than 180 water bodies and temporarily affect at least 109 acres of wetlands. Enbridge is looking to move its pipeline after the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed a lawsuit to shut down and remove Line 5 from the tribe's reservation.

Midwest Environmental Advocates and nine other organizations submitted comments to the DNR about the move, raising concerns about the route, surveys and plans that have yet to be completed.

"DNR seems to be proceeding through the process without a complete permit application, which is really troubling," said Rob Lee, MEA staff attorney.

The agency contends it's still early in the process with more work yet to be done, according to Ben Callan, the agency's section chief of integration services within the Bureau of Environmental Analysis and Sustainability. While the application is deemed complete, he said that doesn't mean that the project has met the agency's standards.

"We haven't determined that we're going to issue a permit," said Callan. "We have to go through a lot more evaluation and review before we can make a determination."

Callan added the agency plans to incorporate public input as part of an environmental impact statement, which must be completed before any decision is made. Callan said a timeline for that review hasn't been determined. He said the EIS would include details on the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the project, which would also be subject to public comment.

However, the groups highlighted that Enbridge has yet to identify the exact route

since it's still working with landowners to acquire property for the project. MEA also argues that Enbridge has failed to provide accurate or sufficient information on specific waterway crossings and its plans to avoid or minimize environmental impacts, as well as ownership information. Groups said the company informed regulators that it had only completed surveys for about 70% of affected waters.

Enbridge argues its route was outlined in its application earlier this year and that ownership details have been sub mitted, adding it expects to wrap up all surveys for the pipeline relocation this week. In February, the energy firm submitted surveys along with data on areas that it hadn't yet reviewed, according to Cathryn Hanson, the company's environmental supervisor. Now, Enbridge plans to submit updated information to the agency, including photos of each of the water crossings.

"It should reflect accurate results from what our surveys have completed and what we are intending to execute," said Hanson.

Hanson said the company is preparing reports and supplemental materials that should be sub mitted to the DNR by late July or early August.

Environmental groups also voiced concern about blasting that will be conducted along the pipeline route.

"While that has occurred in the past, they haven't even identified all of the locations that they're going to engage in this blasting and the locations that they have identified are pretty sensitive areas," said Lee.

Once a contractor is in place, Hanson said, Enbridge will develop plans at each of the sites where blasting will be used. She expects those plans to be provided in the next several months as part of the DNR's review before a final decision is made on the permits.

Line 5 carries up to 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids per day from Superior to Sarnia, Ontario. The company contends the pipeline would create 700 jobs during construction and serve as a vital energy link for the region. Environmental groups have opposed the project, citing its and Enbridge's environmental track record of spills. The company said it's invested billions in the safety and integrity of its network.

Enbridge has faced legal challenges on multiple fronts over its Line 5 pipeline, including a lawsuit from Michigan's Attorney General to shut down and decommission the pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)