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Few make leap to fully open

A week since the City of Rice Lake's reopen resolution, a trickle of business are opening their doors in spite of the state's official restrictions on them.

The day after the vote to allow reopening, salons were flooded with calls for haircuts. But salon owners are forced to turn away customers, rather than risk losing their state licensing.

One business that has reopened is Olympic Fitness. Olympic is owned by Dan Schwab, one of four City alderman who voted to allow early reopening of nonessential businesses.

Olympic stated on its Facebook page, "Your essential business — Mental Health Enhancement Center a.k.a. OLYMPIC FITNESS is scheduled to open May 6th @ 7:30 a.m. — some restrictions WILL apply."

"It was a difficult decision to reopen and we didn't take it lightly," said Schwab in a phone interview Tuesday.

Schwab said the Council's passed resolution emboldened him to reopen.

However, the resolution would not have passed without his own vote.

Schwab said he didn't consider the vote a conflict of interest because it was a blanket resolution of guidelines for businesses and did not favor his business directly.

Schwab said Olympic staff has been educated on safe practices, that disinfecting wipes will be available at the gym and that there will be capacity limitations.

"My belief is that the Safer at Home order was designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus so that it wouldn't overwhelm the health care system. I feel we've accomplished that," said Schwab.

Now, in Schwab's opinion, businesses and the public cannot continue to wait for a vaccine, which will not be ready for several months at the earliest. He said he favored a herd immunity approach instead.

"Healthy people need to catch it, get it over with and move on," he said.

Schwab is also of the opinion that the Safer at Home order

did not supersede the constitutional rights of Americans.

"I believe many of our rights were illegally or unconstitutionally taken away," he said.

Schwab said he expects there will be complaints about his reopening and possibly government orders to close. But he said he is hopeful that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will rule against the governor's orders, which he believes do not make sense for northern Wisconsin, where the virus is less prevalent.

Schwab said Olympic's customers have been understanding in abiding by the Safer At Home order when it first took effect, but now are expressing excitement to get back to the gym. He said those who do not feel ready to return are allowed to cancel membership, no questions asked.

Dan and his wife Laurie Schwab also own Snap Fitness, but will not be reopening it just yet.

"Snap is a franchise, so we have guidelines to follow," said Schwab, adding that they are working to reopen as soon they get go-ahead from Snap's corporate office.

Among other businesses, River City Records and Books in downtown Rice Lake is also open. Next door, Diamond Designs by Bodis has announced openings by appointment only.

Some mattress and furniture stores are attempting to open through a loophole—that being that they sell medical beds.

Cautious approach

Chris Olsen, who is president of the Rice Lake Chamber of Commerce and owner of two downtown businesses, said he is operating within state guidelines, and hoping the state will continue to ease restrictions.

"We've looked at the ramifications, but we are in compliance and confident in all safety measures we are taking," said Olsen.

Since Gov. Tony Evers, eased restrictions on more businesses last week, Ventures Apparel has opened for appointments and curbside pickup, and Northwood Promotions is operating again with a skeleton crew for screenprinting and embroidery.

"I think as a small business we can monitor safety better than a big business," said Olsen.

Olsen said current restrictions have created double-standards in the business community. For example, large superstores can sell furniture, but furniture-specific stores remain closed.

More than 6 weeks into the lockdown, businesses of all kinds are running out of cash reserves, said Olsen.

"Small businesses run on tight margins," he said. "Government aid was the last lifeline for a lot of businesses."

Olsen said he favors a plan pushed by the business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to reopen sooner. The "Back to Business" plan allows for a regional approach to reopening based on population density, infection rate, risk of transmission and healthcare capacity. These standards would be set by the county where the business is operating.

Olsen said he is also concerned that by limiting which businesses can open, people are being concentrated in fewer places, and thus creating more risk for spreading the virus.

After laying off several employees on March 23, Olsen brought back a skeleton crew on Monday. He said for the first hour, his employees just stood around and talked.

"I did not mind paying them for that hour, because they were much happier afterward," said Olsen. "That social interaction is important, and we're all missing that."

Expenses continue as theaters stay dark

"The show must go on" is not just a phrase spoken by actors; it is a reality from a financial standpoint. All of the county's theater groups are feeling the pain of the coronavirus and Gov. Tony Evers' stay-at-home orders.

Most have had to cancel one or two shows already this spring, and plays and musicals scheduled for summer and fall are in limbo.

Northern Star

"We're dark," said Amy Myers, co-executive director of Northern Star Theatre Company in Rice Lake. "We've had to cancel two shows so far, and we're kind of waiting to see what's going to happen and how to restructure the season if we have to."

Co-executive director Nicolle Sabatke-Orson remarked, "We are missing our theater family, missing our creative outlet, missing sharing emotions of a story with our audience members, missing our community."

She added, "We are working very hard to make sure we will be there, when we are able to gather in person, and return to what we do best, entertain and share experiences—the shared moment of held breath during the perfect moment on stage when the audience is in the story and captured by the characters. The cascade of stage lighting that takes us to another place and the hint from the set that takes us to another time. And the people, the actors that bring characters to life, the costumes they wear, and the audiences that appreciate."

Because of the move from their former site by the Main Street bridge to their new home at the Marshall Twelve building, their 24th season began last June with "Newsies" as their first production at the new site and was to have ended this May with "Boeing, Boeing."

In between those first and last performances, the theater company presented "Young Frankenstein," "Blithe Spirit," "Plaid Tidings" and "Winnie the Pooh." It had to cancel the

teen show "Fame Junior" this spring.

Myers said even with the City Council's recommendation to reopen, Northern Star would need a large enough audience to pay a production's rights and royalties.

She is hopeful that Northern Star can still present some of the plays scheduled in their 2020 mini season before getting back on track with a season that follows the calendar year in 2021.

Still on the docket for this year is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in June, "The Music Man" in August, "Frozen Junior" for kids ages 8-18 in October and "Elf, the musical" in December.

The uncertainty of how many of the shows will be a go has required Northern Star's executive board to think outside the box.

Myers said ticket revenue normally pays for licensing, set building expenses, electricity, utilities and costumes.

"We have had to get creative in terms of finances to make up for ticket revenue," she said.

What the executive board came up with on a whim was Virtual Trivia Nights that include prizes. The first was April 25, and the next one is scheduled May 9. Those wanting to participate can find a link on Northern Star's web site at nstcricelake.org or its Facebook page. Signup details can be found both places. A minimum freewill donation of $5-10 is requested; any larger amount is appreciated.

"We had really generous donations the first time," Myers said. "As long as people are interested, we plan to keep them going."

The first Virtual Trivia Night attracted 63 participants making up 23 teams. She said the categories are theater-related but not all questions are theater specific.

"We want to make it so it is applicable to anybody," she said.

Sabatke-Orson commented, "Virtual trivia night is one way we may continue to connect with our theater family and enjoy a night together while practicing safe distancing. We are so thankful for the support from our community during these unprecedented times."

Myers said the executive board is also talking about a virtual cabaret, with players livestreamed from their homes.

As for Northern Star season tickets? "We've had a lot of people who have donated the cost of those shows which we've had to call off," Myers said. "We're appreciative of that. We will honor them in one way or another or roll them over to the next season."

ETC at Cumberland

Larry Werner, who serves on the board of Enrichment Through Culture arts council at Cumberland, said it has had to cancel two plays and its Celebration of the Arts fair at Tourist Park.

He added, "We don't yet know whether we will be able to hold our summer concert series on the lake—Island City Music. We are running negative year-to-date to the tune of $10,000."

Werner said, "While we don't have employees to pay, as businesses and other nonprofits do, we have expenses, such as utilities and property taxes on our building. During the past year, we've had to replace a crumbling sidewalk that had become a safety hazard and bought a sign that allows us to post our events. Now, there are no ETC events to post."

Last week he shared, "At our last board meeting, we talked about doing a fundraising concert at the Cumberland Arts Center in August to celebrate ETC's 30th anniversary. But, of course, we don't know if we'd be able to have such an event even then."

An ad running in the Cumberland newspaper states: "Dear friends, during these difficult times, Cumberland ETC has had to cancel many scheduled events, and like everyone else, we're not sure how long it will be before we can open again. When we do open, we can promise you one thing—we're going to put on one heck of a show, and you're all invited.

"Meanwhile, if you have the means to support us financially at this time, we would be so grateful to count you among our members. You can become a member, or make a donation, by going to cumberlandetc.com and clicking on 'Get involved.' Or you can send donations to ETC, P.O. Box 191, Cumberland, 54829."

Barron Spotlighters

The Barron Spotlighters does not do season tickets anymore but had to close the curtains in the middle of a show.

"What hurt us is the shut down came during a show," said Ann Leistikow, Spotlighters board president. "We got one weekend in but didn't do the matinee for students and nursing home people or the second weekend. That was March. Our set is still up on stage. We are hoping to get another show in."

That show, "Little Women," was the last show of the Spotlighters' 2019-20 season.

Vice president David Blumer remarked, "Complicating matters further, the theater group has not been able to hold inperson board meetings so some of their business items, like nailing down our shows for the upcoming season, has been more difficult.

"We don't know exactly what impact this will have on our summer awards banquet. A date has not been set yet.

"We are at the mercy of whatever the BACC does as it relates to the restrictions as they own the building we perform in and are closed at least for now."

He added, "We hardly ever perform during the summer, but we were planning on having a summer theater camp for kids and have them preform for a summer theatre experience this year. Might still happen, might not."

Blumer said, "We never hold a big audition date for all our shows at once, so that has not been impacted. If for some reason the restrictions get carried into the summer and early fall, the impacts will be much greater. If they don't, our 2020-21 season should pretty much be status quo, assuming we can lock down our shows and performance dates."

Red Barn

The Red Barn released the following statement:

"As you may know Governor Tony Evers has extended the Wisconsin Stay at Home order until May 26.

"Unfortunately, the Red Barn Theatre is canceling its first two shows of the season, 'Ripcord' scheduled May27-June7; and 'Doubt' scheduled June 17-June 27.

"The health and safety patrons, actors, directors and volunteers remains the theater group's first priority. The Board of Directors is carefully monitoring the rest of the season. Please check its Facebook page and website for updates.

"Unfortunately, due to the cancellation of the first two shows, it will not be accepting season tickets this year. If you already purchased certificates for season tickets you have three options: Request a full refund,. hold the ticket over until 2021 or donate the ticket to the Red Barn. Call 715-234-8301 to make arrangements; individual tickets will be sold for any shows presented."

City bucks state order
5-4 vote pushes for businesses to reopen, but county officials urge caution

Rice Lake City Council approved a resolution Tuesday inviting businesses to reopen ahead of the May 26 timeline of the Safer At Home order issued by Gov. Tony Evers.

With the Council locked at 4-4, Mayor Mike Diercks cast a rare tie-breaking vote to allow for reopening. The decision stands in contrast to the advice of the Barron County public health officer and sheriff, who both stated during the virtual meeting that they intend to uphold state orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

The actions of the Council and Mayor are largely symbolic, because the City lacks the power to supersede state and federal orders.

The resolution appears to allow all businesses to reopen, and advises city police to enforce state laws at their own discretion. The resolution advises businesses to follow public health guidelines to determine the safest practices for reopening. Restrictions continue only for bars and restaurants, which may not open before May 11 for dine-in service.

Diercks introduced the agenda item one day prior to the meeting.

"Our local businesses need some help," he said. "A lot of this business are sole proprietors—not big corporations. We need to do whatever we can to help these businesses go forward."

Diercks said he had been told by several businesses that if they could not reopen soon, they risked not reopening at all.

"The problem is we are so limited in our testing capabilities," said county public health officer Laura Sauve.

While Mayo Clinic has testing, other health care providers have not been able to obtain adequate testing supplies, she said. Sauve said she was also concerned about recent outbreaks at meat processing plants, saying Jennie-O in Barron could be susceptible to such an outbreak.

Seven people in Barron County have tested positive for COVID-19 have, and people are still being tested

every day. More than 800 tests have come back negative for COVID-19 in the county.

Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said, "Until we get more testing we can't go against the governor's order."

When asked by Diercks if county deputies were prepared to come into the city and enforce the order, Fitzgerald said yes.

Fitzgerald said he was bound by law to follow state orders, unless a court challenge against the governor's policies is successful. "With a swipe of a pen I can be taken out of office if I do not abide by the governor's orders," he said.

Rice Lake Police Chief Steve Roux agreed that the nature of police is to enforce laws, but he said he felt there was some ambiguity about which businesses are essential or non-essential.

The City's resolution was largely drafted by its contracted legal counsel Arnold Koehler, who questioned the legality of the governor's order.

He said not allowing people to use their assets for the purpose of gaining income is depriving people of property without due process. He said the order also infringes on people's right to assemble.

Alderman Jim Dorrance called for a more cautious approach. "We're really not listening to what our experts are saying," he said.

He said the state is laying a plan for easing the COVID-19 precautions, including the recent opening of more businesses and parks.

"I think we're putting our officers in somewhat of a quandary. We just don't know enough. I think we could be putting people in jeopardy," said Dorrance.

Alderman Cory Schnacky said, "This is about putting the power back in people's hands."

Aldermen voting in favor of the motion for reopening were Dan Lawler, Harlan Dodge, Dan Schwab and Schnacky. Voting opposed were Dorrance, Todd Larson, Mark O'Brien and Doug Edwardsen. The meeting was held via video conference, and was disrupted periodically by technical difficulties. No comments from the public were allowed during the meeting.

The City will resume in person meetings May 26, according to the minutes of its Emergency Executive committee, which consists of City administrator Curt Snyder, Council President Dan Schwab, Fire Chief Jim Resac (or other relevant department head) and Mayor Diercks. Diercks vote against the motion to resume in-person meetings, according to the minutes.

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