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Officers investigating death following stand-off in Hayward

The City of Hayward Police Department has requested that the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) investigate a death in Hayward that occurred early Tuesday, Feb. 2.

At approximately 8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1, law enforcement officers were called to a residence on Illinois Avenue on a report that a man had broken into the residence and held the resident hostage. The resident eventually escaped and called law enforcement.

Officers, including a special response team (SRT), responded and negotiated with the man and a long standoff ensued. After some time the man was no longer responsive to law enforcement commands. Officers sent a camera robot into the residence and discovered that the man was deceased.

Police Chief Joel Clapero said no law enforcement personnel or other involved individuals were injured during this incident. Police did not release the identities of the deceased individual or the resident who was held hostage.

The DCI is leading the investigation and is being assisted by the Wisconsin State Patrol, Lac Courte Oreilles Police Department, Washburn County Sheriff's Office and Sawyer County Sheriff's Office. All involved law enforcement agencies are cooperating with the DCI during this investigation, said Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The DCI is continuing to review evidence and determine the facts of this incident and will turn over investigative reports to the Sawyer County district attorney, Kaul said.


Despite COVID-19, Weiss Library keeps on keeping on

Editor's note: Since this story was written, Hayward's Weiss Community Library has announced that beginning Feb. 9 it will reopen to the public Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with certain COVID-related restrictions. See a separate story in this edition of the Record.

COVID-19 has changed the community in many ways that once were taken for granted, perhaps none so profoundly as the library.

It was March 24, 2020, when the Sherman & Ruth Weiss Community Library closed its doors, following Gov. Tony Evers' Stay at Home Order, effective 8 a.m. the following morning. Shortly thereafter, Sherry Machones, director of the Northern Waters Library Service (NWLS), directed all libraries to close, with only library staff given access to "preserve the building, IT issues and payroll." No curbside service was allowed at that time.

"Naturally, the staff and I felt shell-shocked," said Weiss Library Director Molly Lank-Jones. "Our library's heart and soul are the people we serve. Our natural inclination was to continue providing regular services, but we needed to learn how to best protect the public and ourselves."

In the days to follow, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) issued guidelines on what Wisconsin libraries could and couldn't do, and Lank-Jones and her staff worked with Sawyer County Health and Human Services Health Officer Julia Lyons as they scrambled to reinvent, redesign and reformat library services.

It didn't take them long.

Assistant Director Ann Larson told the Record the library conducted its first virtual Facebook live event the day the doors closed.

"We had a LEGO Club meeting scheduled for the evening and (I) conducted it on Facebook Live from my home," she said, adding that she would read a book and the children would then make something that inspired them. Those Facebook Live events continued weekly through the summer, followed by monthly events in the fall.

Soon, Northwest Connection for Family Resources partnered with the library, with Tuesday morning Facebook Live Storytime events. Those continue to this day, Larson said.

Other programs that were offered include a gardening program, Beanstack, the Cable Natural History program, Story Walk, a Natural Trail audio guide, WOJB Thursday morning broadcast and a December "Christmas Cookie Challenge."

Lank-Jones said she and Larson worked from home at that time, contacting volunteers, Friends of the Library, Hayward Library Foundation and the library board. They wrote press releases, provided updates to the public on their website and Facebook page, used Zoom to attend meetings and continuing education webinars, completed ongoing administrative work and prepared library materials so they would be ready when the library reopened.

The rest of the staff attended continuing education webinars, emptied drop boxes, quarantined the items and did other library work from their homes. Some took short leaves of absence.

Lank-Jones said online services were maintained, including Libby, OverDrive eBooks, Gale classes and BadgerLink magazines and newspapers. She also set up a "Little Free Library" box of books just outside the library doors, which people could draw from.

"There are those of us who always need a book or five on hand, or we get panicky," Lank-Jones said.

On May 1 the library began curbside pickup, following DPI safety guides. The staff was allowed to return to work and they were able to provide the public with selected books, photocopies and faxes.

Lank-Jones described the process for books:

"We pull the items from the shelf or put them on hold at other libraries. Once the items are in, people are automatically notified by phone, email or text that the items are waiting. People then call the library to make an appointment for curbside pickup, or they can schedule online themselves 24 hours in advance of the appointment."

The library places the items in a plastic bag and labels the bag with just the person's initials and vehicle description to protect their personal information, then puts the bags on tables in order by day and time they will be picked up.

On June 24 the library opened on Wednesdays for in-library appointments and provided curbside pickup the other days. On July 21 the library added Tuesday to in-library appointments.

When COVID numbers went down in October the library opened without appointments on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with curbside pickup the other days.

In November a staff member tested positive for COVID and the library shut down for two weeks with all staff getting tested and quarantined. When the library reopened on Nov. 18 it was with curbside pickup only because COVID-19 numbers were high, and that remains the status quo to date, although many online services are available.

The library staff

"Our library staff has been amazing," Lank-Jones said. "Their first concern has been protecting our library users over themselves in many instances. They have been so flexible in adjusting from working at home during the initial state-directed complete closure, to learning an entirely new way of working for curbside pickup and in-library appointments.

"Assistant Director Ann Larson determined how to schedule one staff member at the front door, one staff member at the checkout desk, and one staff member at our delivery computer's location for curbside pickup and in-library use. This was necessary for us to observe the six-feet apart rule of thumb.

"It's interesting," she continued, "that, because we are so accustomed to working together closely, without thinking, we seek comfort by banding together at different times of the day. We have to constantly remember to give each other plenty of space when we pass one another in the hall, or if more than one of us decides to go to the circulation desk or break room at the same time. We know intellectually that even with face masks on, we can spread the virus if one of us unknowingly has it. But like family members, there's that illusion that we're safe together," LankJones said.

"I know the situation is strange and frustrating for the library staff, as they have the natural tendency to greet people face-to-face and help them with whatever they need. Despite feeling up in the air from the limited knowledge regarding COVID-19, the staff has adapted to changes in our daily routines.

"Usually, they are quite busy answering the phones, packaging library materials for curbside pickup, taking items out to be picked up on the little table by the front entrance, emptying the drop boxes, processing and quarantining deliveries from other libraries, and working on extra projects."

Public response

Lank-Jones said the public "has been wonderfully patient with us. We have received many notes thanking us for the services we are providing, and appreciating our efforts to keep everyone as safe as possible."

For people who use their phones, iPads, Kindles and other devices, the library offers free WiFi access 24/7 in the library parking lot. The library also makes special arrangements to accommodate people who need to take online tests or seriously need access to a computer for business purposes, LankJones said, adding that she and Larson serve as test proctors for people who need to take tests online for school or their jobs.

"Even when we're just open for curbside pickup, we schedule people when possible to use one of the two small study rooms with computers. That way they have privacy and can shut the door to protect their own health and the library staff's. Of course, we sanitize the study rooms before and after for safety," she said.

The meeting room

Lank-Jones said some groups, such as a few different book clubs, are meeting online or have suspended their gatherings until it's safe to meet in person again. Some groups use coffee shops, restaurants, people's homes or hold meetings through online software.

The Library Board of Trustees, Friends of the Library and Hayward Library Foundation usually hold their monthly meetings in the library's meeting room since three plexiglass dividers have been installed at some of the tables. The groups simultaneously hold the meetings on Zoom, so anyone who is uncomfortable attending in person is able to take part online.

The room is also being used as a small studio for Larson's online children's and adults' programs, and as storage space for most of the library furniture, since social distancing rules have been in effect.

One of the best pieces of news the library received was a $6,842 CARES relief grant that enabled the library to fund many of the virtual and digital programs and order COVID-related supplies, including the installation of the plexiglass now surrounding the circulation desk.

"The Wisconsin Humanities CARES Relief grant is the most essential grant our library has been awarded in my 25 years as director of the Sherman & Ruth Weiss Community Library," Lank-Jones said. "It armed us with the essential products to help protect our community, visitors and staff, and thus continue to provide library services to those who need it."


Concerns raised over 2021 Birkie and spreading COVID
Out of an abundance of caution, Birkie says international skiers will not participate

Because of COVID-19 concerns, many large athletic events around the country have either cancelled or gone entirely virtual, such as the Boston Marathon. But the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) is attempting to offer the annual Birkebeiner events this Feb. 24-28 with both in-person and virtual races while observing safety protocols for participants and the community.

Two of the most substantial of the COVID-related restrictions at this year's Birkie are that none of the races will finish in downtown Hayward, where large crowds have traditionally gathered, and fewer participants in the two major races — American Birkebeiner and the Kortelopet — will actually be skiing on race day.

More than 30% of participants will be skiing virtually from other locations. Also this year's events are spread out over five days with more time being allowed between race waves to reduce contact between skiers.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic still present and local infections still occurring — even if at a reduced rate — the thought of thousands of athletes from around the United States and some from abroad gathering here has many concerned, particularly as new, more contagious virus variances are being introduced, from abroad, to the United States.

Addressing one major concern, on Tuesday, Feb. 2, ABSF Executive Director Ben Popp told the Record that all international skiers (only nine had officially said they were going to attend) have been asked not to participate this year because of COVID concerns.

The prospect of international skiers bringing in a new virus variant to the area is very concerning to Sara Wartman, Bayfield County Public Health Officer. Most of the actual skiing for this year's Birkie will occur in Bayfield County, starting and finishing at the Birkie start line in the Town of Cable. Wartman said she had expressed concerns about holding the 2021 Birkie as early as last summer.

"I told them that this doesn't seem like a good idea," she said. "I didn't think the COVID pandemic would be over. There were just a lot of unknowns back in August. And I told them that we won't know what's happening until February, until we get closer to the time frame."

New virus variants are already in America. A variant from the United Kingdom (UK) has some experts questioning the wisdom of a strategy to hold back supplies of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for second doses, and are now encouraging wider application of a first dose to cover more before the new variants gain a foothold, resulting in more hospitalizations.

"We have obvious concerns, listening to the general news, about variants from South America or Africa or the UK," she said.

Wartman said the Birkie's plan to protect racers appears to be solid, but her concerns are more with the community, including the 28% of Bayfield County residents who are 65 years of age and older, a population more vulnerable to COVID.

One possible cushion to COVID-19 concerns is that vaccinations have been occurring since late December and recently those 65 and over have been eligible. However, Sawyer County Public Health Officer Julia Lyons said that due to recent cuts in the vaccine order she predicts all those 65 and older will not be vaccinated until March.

"We are probably going to be well into March before our vulnerable populations have had their second vaccination," she said.

Wartman said more than 1,000 people on a single day still plan on being in her county for the Birkie.

"The CDC (Center for Disease Control) still says no gatherings over 250," she said. "So we are talking between 1,000 to 1,500 people. They are spreading it out over days, so that's a good idea to minimize impact, but it doesn't mean there is elimination of risk. You can do a lot of safety planning, but there's no elimination of risk."

On Friday, Jan. 29, Lyons passed a press release (see "Health officer addresses COVID Birkie concerns") addressing concerns over the 2021 Birkie. She said she has heard Birkie concerns raised but said the reality is there has been a constant stream of visitors to the area from last summer to this winter. Right now new snow has attracted numerous skiers, snowmobilers and ATVers, who have been occupying hotels and filling bars and restaurants.

Lyons had consulted with the Birkie about its summer and early fall events but not about the 2021 Birkie.

"I know they've been working with the hospital, with Luke Beirl, the chief executive officer," she said. "Beirl has been closely consulting with them, and I do think they've done a good job of using the best practices for the events in terms of those who participate, but what they can't do is control what happens outside in the community."

Beirl issued a statement saying he had been working with the Birkie and had shared concerns on how the hospital could be impacted if infections increase.

"Hayward Area Memorial Hospital is concerned about the impact any and all events that occur in our region have on the local health and safety of our community," he said. "It is not our role to determine whether or not area events should be held. However, it is important that as a health care leader in our community and region we share our concerns with the event when we believe the event may profoundly impact our ability to deliver acute health care services."

A group of concerned citizens, three women, who call themselves "Birkie supporters," but did not want to be identified this article, have also raised concerns about the 2021 Birkie and are advocating for 100% virtual races.

Beside community concerns, the women also say even though skiers will be wearing masks at the start and end and will be spread out in waves, with fewer participating than in previous Birkies, that during an actual race skiers do bunch up and its likely on the course they will not be wearing masks.

Popp told the Record skiers will not have their 2021 times used in their future wave standing, and the Birkie is encouraging skiers to just enjoy the course and not race competitively. Taking away one incentive, there will be no age-related winners this year.

Perspectives

Several large ski races, from high school to community events, already have been held on local trails, including the Jan. 16-17 Gitchi Gami Games. This event attracted over 900 participants, spectators and volunteers, without resulting in a spike in COVID infections.

The area has been inundated with visitors from early summer to the present, which has been a boon to the local economy, setting a record for county sales tax revenues in 2020. But there have also been several noticeable COVID-19 spikes during that period, especially the weeks before Thanksgiving when more than 100 new cases a week were reported for at least three weeks in Sawyer County.

The Birkie is anticipating 5,000 skiers to show up in person over five days, but as race day approaches more are opting to participate virtually. Skiers have until Feb. 27 to switch to the virtual mode.

The number skiing in-person will be roughly 50% of a normal Birkie, and with 15 minute gaps between waves, skiers will not be allowed to congregate prior to or after races.

Officially, the Birkie is encouraging skiers to use the virtual option. However, in speaking with skiers participating during Saturday's Seeley Hills Classic and the Sunday Birkie Tour, most said they were choosing to participate in-person and expressed confidence that the Birkie was taking proper safety precautions for the racers and community.

The Birkie is encouraging skiers who show up in person to make it a day trip and to bring their own supplies. Skiers who have had COVID in the last 90 days have been asked to stay home.

Another of the biggest concerns was addressed with Popp's announcement that the international skiers will not be coming. And of those who plan to attend this Birkie, Popp said, will be coming from either Minnesota, Michigan or Wisconsin and several have already been up skiing the local trails.

"The sense that we are having people come from all over the world like a normal Birkie is not true this year," Popp said. "This is not a normal Birkie. This was never going to be a normal Birkie."

He added, "I don't think we're inviting a really totally new group of people to the community. As we've seen, we are a tourist destination. Let's face it, people have been coming up anyway. The amazing thing about our community is that we've adapted to create a safe intersection for tourist.

"Whether it's the grocery stores, bars, restaurants, gas stations — they've all put in precautions and we've been able to create safe environments. Our COVID numbers are falling. What we are doing as a community is working. The last few months we've had a huge infusion of visitors but we haven't seen the COVID numbers go up dramatically."

Popp was asked why the Birkie even considered keeping in-person races when other big events, like the Boston Marathon, decided to go entirely virtual. He said the Birkie has the distinction that races are held in more of a closed system and not on city streets, as with the Boston Marathon, where the public could be exposed.

Lastly, Popp was asked if dynamics change and health concerns are raised, would the Birkie make the call to go entirely virtual.

He said the Birkie "absolutely" retains the option of going entirely virtual if health concerns warrant it.


Health officer addresses COVID concerns for Birkie events

Editor's note: The following press release was issued Friday, Jan. 29, by Sawyer County Public Health Officer Julia Lyons in response to concerns by some residents about the upcoming gathering for the 2021 American Birkebeiner, Feb. 24-28. Most events will be held near the start line in Bayfield County, but many of the participants and guests also are expected to be in Sawyer County visiting local stores, hotels, restaurants and bars.

The Sawyer County Health Department is fielding an increasing number of calls from local residents who are concerned about the potential negative impacts of hosting a large international event in our rural county during a global pandemic.

The Sawyer County Health Department is fielding an increasing number of calls from local residents who are concerned about the potential negative impacts of hosting a large international event in our rural county during a global pandemic.

We share many of those concerns; however, in Wisconsin, both local and state health officials have limited power to maintain and enforce public health orders.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Sawyer County Public Health has consistently advised these safety measures:

• Stay home as much as possible

• Minimize exposure to those not in your household

• Maintain a safe social distance from others

• Wear a mask in public spaces

Those recommendations have not changed. While Sawyer County's COVID infection rate is considerably reduced from the highest levels seen in November, the county continues to be categorized in the highest risk level.

During the pandemic thousands of visitors have and will continue to visit Sawyer County to enjoy its many outdoor amenities. Sawyer County Public Health is committed to working with citizens, businesses and schools to safely balance the physical, psychological and economic health needs of this community.

We have met with Birkie staff to discuss concerns. Their plans eliminate gatherings in enclosed spaces and minimize person-to-person contact.

In-person participation is currently 5,000 participants over five days, compared to more than 10,000 over two days in a normal year. There is no busing, no in-person bib pick up, no Birkie Expo. The race begins and ends in Bayfield County. Racers will be distanced in far smaller waves than in the past. There are virtual options for participants who choose not to travel.

Birkie reports that every day more participants are switching to virtual options and many are only traveling here for the day. (For a full explanation of this year's changes, please consult birkie.com and address further concerns directly to them.)

Based on their plans, these are our recommendations:

Local residents not directly involved with the event: Limit your travel to public spaces and continue to follow recommended safety guidelines.

Local workers and businesses: Follow masking recommendations and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) guidance. Offer curbside and carry-out options to minimize contact.

Those who host guests in their homes: Minimize contact, socially distance and wear masks when indoors.

Participants: Choose a virtual option, if possible. Visitors should be aware that the community's adherence to mask wearing is not universal and Sawyer County's seven-day average daily case rate of 45 cases per 100,000 is more than double that of metropolitan areas such as the Twin Cities or Madison.

Now that vaccines are available, our focus must be on getting our citizens vaccinated as quickly as possible. Nearly 27% of our population is over 65, the most vulnerable age group for complications from the virus. Currently, demand for the vaccine far outpaces supply, but plans are in place to ramp up as soon as supplies increase.


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