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It's a scary time to be ghoulies, ghosties or wee little beasties — with maybe a fairy princess or two thrown in — scrounging for free candy as Halloween approaches during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the show will go on with health departments providing guidance for celebrating the most haunted time of the year as safely as possible.
Although the pandemic is making trick-or-treating trickier, the Bayfield and Ashland health departments have a few ideas as to how to scare up Halloween fun, such as making trick-or-treating kids goodies bags, holding virtual costume events and partying at home with family.
"It was already a fun holiday, but this encourages creativity," said Sara Wartman, Bayfield County public health Wartman officer.
Wartman and Ashland County Health and Human Services Department counterpart Liz Szot had many tricks up their sleeves when it came to Halloween safety.
Ashland County recently released a list of Halloween activities that carry low-, medium-and high-risk activities for contracting COVID-19.
Szot recommended that families stick to low-risk activities, such as decorating the house, carving pumpkins with a few family and friends, having a virtual costume contest or watching scary movies at home. No matter what, staying within a close circle of friends and family is safest, she said.
Wartman suggested families buy candy and play some games at home to avoid the
risk of going out.
But if going door-todoor — a moderate-risk activity — is on the agenda, the health department directors had a few tips for that as well.
Wartman said parents should remain in their home communities, even though it's been Chequamegon Bay tradition to travel from town to town if trick-or-treating is set for different days such as it has been between Washburn and Ashland.
And costumed critters should travel one way through the neighborhood and be mindful of keeping their social distance, Szot said. She also recommended that separate goody bags be prepared in advance or treats delivered in such a way that kids don't plunge their hands into a communal bowl.
And both health officers implored trick-ortreaters' parents to heed the porch lights and not knock on the doors of homes with lights unlit.
Also on the moderate-risk list is traveling through an open-air, one-way haunted forest. Wartman said some places are decorating their yards or nearby woods for people to take a terrifying trek.
Traditional-style trickor-treating falls under the high-risk activity list.
That's one reason why Ashland's famous Chapple Avenue extravaganza has been canceled this year. According to the Ashland County Health Department, most houses on the street will not turn on their lights and the city will not close the street to traffic. Plans are to return the Halloween tradition in 2021.
And it goes without saying that whenever trick-or-treaters are out trolling the streets for goodies, they should wear proper cloth masks that cover the lower face. Costume masks probably won't cut the mustard.
Some communities have scheduled trick-ortreating hours, although Bayfield will not. Washburn Mayor Mary Motiff is considering a trunkor-treat in the city, but details have not been finalized.
Ashland's hours will be from 5 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 31. Iron River will hold trick-or-treating at the same time, plus it's holding a virtual Halloween costume contest. Photos can be uploaded to visitironriver.com/events by Nov. 15 and prizewinners will be announced on Nov. 20.
For more Halloween safety tips visit, facebook.com/AshlandCountyHealthHumanServicesPublicHealth or cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html.
Ashland's Bretting Community Center is closed and gymnastics classes taught there are cancelled after a positive COVID test was recorded there amid soaring local rates.
Ashland Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hudson said a staff member at the center, whose name she could not release due to privacy requirements, tested positive, forcing closure through at least Wednesday.
Hudson said another staff member has had an exposure unrelated to the first case and was awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test Monday. Both were wearing masks while they were at the center.
Hudson said she and other staff members who were in close contact with the person who tested positive were quarantining from home and would likely remain there for two weeks from their exposures.
The closure of the center affects only the gymnastics class held there, Hudson said. She said she has contacted program directors and parents about the case.
"We are letting them know to watch their children for symptoms, and if they were in class with this individual, we are encouraging them to do a 14 day quarantine," she continued.
After going for months with only a handful of cases, Ashland County has become one of the hottest of hot spots in Wisconsin, which is leading the nation in outbreaks. As of Sunday, the county counted 265 positive cases with three deaths and neighboring Bayfield County had recorded 201 confirmed cases with one associated death.
Ashland County Health Officer Elizabeth Szot said local cases are growing so quickly because of unsafe social interaction among residents.
"A lot of people continue to have family gatherings, parties, different social events, whether it is going out for somebody's birthday party, or they are going to their favorite local establishment to go to a Packer party," she
said. "These kinds of social events continue to bring people from different geographic areas together and they are in small spaces, they are not social distancing, and if you are at somebody's private residence you are more than likely not going to be wearing your mask. People are then exposing their families, their friends, their loved ones, community members."
Szot said the real danger posed by gatherings is that people infected but not yet showing or feeling symptoms can unwittingly infect an entire household or tavern full of customers.
"So people who aren't even aware of it could expose their family, not even knowing that they are ill, and the virus continues to pass," she said.
What's tragic is that it is all preventable, Szot said.
"If people are mindful of social distancing and continue to wear their masks, not attend social gatherings, that would go a long way to help matters," Szot said.
Szot recommends that people hold virtual parties and have small, family-centered Halloween events rather than the traditional trick-or-treating excursions.
She said the Trunk-orTreat event slated at the Marengo Mural Park for Friday, which calls for social distancing and treats to be placed on tables for children with adults wearing masks and gloves, helped to make the spread of the disease less likely.
"There are some accommodations that can be made to lower the risk," she said.
At the Bretting Center, work was underway Monday to prepare for reopening. Hudson said air-handling equipment was shut off to allow any particles carrying coronavirus to settle. On Wednesday morning, custodial staff will give the building a deep cleaning and the air-handling units will be turned on to replace inside air with fresh air.
"This goes with the Center for Disease Control guidelines," she said. "We will resume classes on Wednesday afternoon for those parents who still want to participate. Our gymnastics classes are the only things we have been offering in the month of October."
News that three trays of mail had been discovered in a ditch in Greenville, Wisconsin, recently evolved into a national talking point for conservative outlets such as Breitbart.
President Donald Trump's administration used the story in its ongoing campaign to sow distrust in voting by mail. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany cited it as evidence of "a system that's subject to fraud," and Trump claimed that mail ballots were being "dumped in rivers" and "creeks" during the presidential debate against Democratic challenger Joe Biden — an apparent reference to the mail found in a Fox Valley ditch.
But the claims were based on incomplete information. While the Outagamie County Sheriff's Office told news outlets that the trays of mail included "several" absentee ballots, none came from Wisconsin, and no authority has linked the trays to nefarious activity.
"There was mail found outside of Appleton, and that mail did not contain any Wisconsin ballots," said Meagan Wolfe, administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, in an Oct. 1 news conference.
Wolfe said she did not have additional information about the contents of the mail, which the U.S. Postal Service was investigating.
An onslaught of Wisconsin-focused social media content has attacked the integrity of the Postal Service, voting by mail and the country's election system. Wisconsinites can expect to see more falsehoods ahead of Nov. 3.
The deluge of disinformation could shape the outcome of the election, said Michael Wagner, a professor of journalism and mass communication and expert on political messaging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"In swing states like Wisconsin, something that affects 5,000 to 15,000 people could sway the entire presidential election. So, it doesn't have to have a big effect in terms of numbers to have a huge effect with respect to who wins," he said.
The best defense from rumors and hoaxes is knowing what to expect. Here's a preview of misinformation that voters are likely to encounter on social media in the weeks ahead.
Attempts to discredit the election
In this era of extreme political polarization, Trump's supporters are branding city and county clerks as partisans who cannot be trusted to oversee basic processes such as counting ballots.
"The most insidious kind of voter suppression are posts that try to sow a lack of confidence in the integrity of our electoral systems," Wagner said.
Milwaukee-based WISN radio host Dan O'Donnell used this strategy on April 7, primary election day, appearing to prime his wide audience to doubt the results through an evidence-free tweet suggesting a conspiracy. He said ballots would sit "unwatched" in office buildings, surrounded by "hardcore partisans."
Asked for evidence that Madison poll workers would violate their oaths to uphold the state Constitution, O'Donnell pointed Wisconsin Watch to tweets expressing liberal viewpoints from a Twitter user who identifies as a volunteer poll worker in Madison.
In his response to Wisconsin Watch, O'Donnell also criticized Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, a Democrat, for telling voters ahead of the April 7 primary that they could request a mail-in ballot without having to provide a photo ID by designating themselves as "indefinitely confined" during the state's Safer at Home order. The Wisconsin Supreme Court later blocked that guidance.
More recently, O'Donnell's fellow WISN host Vicki McKenna took aim at Madison's Democracy in the Park event, which allowed voters to hand completed absentee ballots directly to poll workers on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3. McKenna, who did not respond to a request for comment, called the event "illegal ballot harvesting" and claimed the ballot collection bags were "entirely unsecured," while questioning the legitimacy of the poll workers themselves.
"The poll workers in each city park tomorrow have taken an oath of office," Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said in a press release ahead of the first day of the event. "They are the same dedicated public servants who administer elections at your polling place on Election Day."
Caroline Hoffman, a poll worker stationed at Burrows Park on Oct. 3, told Wisconsin Watch that the ballot-collection bags were secure.
"We have it in our sight at all times," she said. "We hand it to a courier, and the courier takes it straight to the City Clerk's office. There are at least three witnesses who watch it being locked, and we all count the ballots and sign our names."
Voters can check the status of their absentee ballots at myvote.wi.gov.
Postal system targeted
A photo of a stack of mailboxes in an industrial lot went viral on social media in mid-August, after a Twitter user falsely called it evidence of "massive voter suppression" in Wisconsin.
The post came after Trump declared opposition to emergency funding for the Postal Service and questioned the agency's ability to deliver ballots.
While the image was captured in Wisconsin, the mailboxes weren't being decommissioned to sabotage voting by mail. Online sleuths quickly discovered that the photo depicted Hartford Finishing, a business in Hartford that contracts with the Postal Service to refurbish or destroy old mailboxes. That explains the stacks in the photo.
Another example appeared in the public Facebook group Western Wisconsin Conservatives. The post shows a postal worker rounding up Trump signs and claims that "they found his truck full of them."
"Just think, he might be responsible for delivering your ballot and vote," the user says.
The post doesn't specify when or where the photo was taken, but its appearance on a Wisconsin-specific page might lead people to believe it was local. However, a reverse-image search shows the image originally accompanied a story about a postal worker who removed Trump signs in Townsend, Delaware, immediately before the presidential election — in 2016. The image wasn't new or relevant, but was presented as both.
Social media users are likely to encounter that strategy in the weeks ahead, said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns with Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizen reform advocacy group.
"This is a common tactic of disinformation actors: Find a story that says what you want it to say ... make sure you either screen-capture it so it doesn't say the state or the date — or that the link preview you put on Facebook doesn't say those things — and then put it up online, and say, 'This is further evidence of what's happening' or 'Why is no one talking about this?'"
The Postal Service treats ballots as first-class mail and takes special care to make sure they are delivered securely. And evidence suggests that universal vote-by-mail isn't an advantage for either party.
"There is no evidence that there is any widespread effort of postal workers to somehow affect the vote," Littlewood said.
Though the Postal Service is facing logistical challenges and has struggled in recent months to hit on-time service goals in handling first-class mail — including in Wisconsin — that doesn't mean the agency is participating in a conspiracy to sabotage the election.
The Postal Service's web page on election mail is required reading for voters who doubt that mail-in ballots will be handled with care and professionalism.
With the threat of political violence growing in the United States, armed "poll watchers" might show up to polling places on Election Day. Social media accounts might also spread false rumors that militia members are at a specific polling place.
"That's something that could easily be manipulated by bad actors," Littlewood said.
Another common voter suppression tactic: posting that law enforcement, military or ICE personnel are waiting at polling places. During Wisconsin's two primary elections, for example, misinformation about the National Guard's assistance at the polls ran rampant.
Before the Aug. 11 partisan primary, Matt Trewhella — a Brookfield pastor who publicly connected mask mandates to atrocities like the Holocaust — called the presence of guard members "utterly ridiculous and dangerous."
In reality, guard members performed the regular functions of poll workers, said Maj. Joe Trovato, deputy director of public affairs for the Wisconsin National Guard.
"In the past three elections, thousands of citizen soldiers and airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard served on state active duty as poll workers across Wisconsin's communities," he said. "They served in civilian clothes and performed all the same duties as traditional poll workers while largely working in the counties in which they reside." In a recent news briefing, Gov. Tony Evers said he planned to activate the National Guard to help dozens of communities facing poll worker shortages on Nov. 3.
"They're not going to be there in camouflage ready to attack. They're there to check you in, take your ballot and give you an 'I Voted' sticker," Wagner said.
Capitalizing on chaos
Election Day won't unfold perfectly. Wisconsinites could see long lines and individual voting machines malfunction. But that wouldn't suggest a widespread effort to disqualify votes.
"We see this every election cycle: There are people's videos of a ballotmarking device changing their vote," Littlewood said. "It's a touch-screen, and you press one candidate and it looks like it's marking another candidate. That will happen because of a miscalibration of the machine, because touch screens can be sort of finicky ...What's important is that voters fix that at their individual polling place, but it's not an indication of a widespread plot to change votes or disenfranchise people."
Unsure about a sketchysounding claim made on Facebook or Twitter? Don't interact with the post — actions that would draw more attention to potentially false information, Littlewood said.
A better bet: Wait for verification from an elections official or nonpartisan civic engagement group, such as the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.
A surge in voting by mail will almost certainly delay the declaration of the winner of the presidential election, adding time for disinformation to spread, Littlewood said. Wisconsin is among the few states that bans poll workers from processing absentee ballots until Election Day.
There is no such thing as night-of results. Elections are certified weeks after Election Day, not when news anchors project the winner.
"It's more important to be accurate than fast," Littlewood said. "It may take time to count every vote, but that's what we do in a democracy."
Howard Hardee is a Madison-based journalist who created a misinformation toolkit for consumers funded by the Craig Newmark Philanthropies. He is a fellow at First Draft, an organization that trains journalists to detect and report on disinformation. Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.