MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Monday allowed nearly all nonessential businesses to reopen as long as they serve no more than five customers at a time, partially lifting the restriction that has kept them closed for weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The latest order, which took effect immediately, addresses criticism from smaller businesses and Republican lawmakers that it was unfair to allow essential businesses such as grocery stores to remain open while nonessential businesses such as flower shops had to close under Evers' “safer at home” order, which runs until May 26. The latest order applies to all standalone stores and those in strip malls that have entrances to the outside, but not to stores in large indoor shopping malls.
The order, issued by Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm at Evers' direction, strongly encourages all shoppers and store workers to wear masks, but does not require it. Everyone in the store must maintain a 6-foot distance from one another. Evers also allowed drive-in movie theaters to reopen.
“This is another disciplined turn of the dial that will allow Wisconsin’s business owners to safely get back to work and Wisconsin consumers to support their favorite local spots,” Evers said in a statement. “Both customers and workers need to be confident in their safety, so we need everyone to be diligent in following best safety practices so we can continue to move our state forward while keeping our neighbors, families, and communities safe and healthy.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is weighing a Republican-backed lawsuit that seeks to block the extension of the order and take away the power of Evers’ health secretary to make similar orders in the future. Instead, the Evers administration would have to work with the GOP-controlled Legislature on enacting a rule.
Also on Monday, free community testing sites opened in Milwaukee and Madison, expanding the number of locations where people can show up without an appointment to get screened for the highly contagious virus without having to leave their vehicles.
The community testing sites are part of the state's ongoing effort to create testing sites in areas with a known lack of access to COVID-19 testing or with community spread, which is when health officials can't trace how a person contracted the disease. The sites, which also conduct walk-up testing, are open to all residents, including those working jobs deemed to be essential.
“I urge anyone who needs a test to go get tested at one of these sites and help protect your community and family from this virus," Evers said in a statement.
Lines of cars stretched for blocked in Milwaukee, with people saying they had to wait for hours to get tested. Milwaukee has been hit hard by the virus, with more than half of the deaths and a third of the confirmed cases recorded in Milwaukee County.
Health officials urge anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or who has been in close contact with someone who has the virus to get tested. National Guard troops are helping process people at the sites. In Milwaukee, as many as 500 people a day were expected to come through.
“The whole goal here is the more we can ramp up the testing, the more we believe we can quickly get our life back to normal,” Mayor Tom Barrett said in an online news conference Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
As of Sunday, more than 10,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Wisconsin, which had a death toll of 400 deaths and 1,820 people hospitalized with the disease.
Evers' three-phase plan for easing his “safer at home” order would be triggered only after the state meets six criteria, including fewer new diagnoses of coronavirus, fewer new reports of flu-like symptoms, and a lower percentage of positive coronavirus tests for 14 days. As of Monday, only two of six criteria for entering the first reopening phase had been met.
Establishing the community testing sites is part of the Evers administration plan to increase testing to get a better handle on where the virus is and to limit its spread.
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