By Frank Zufall
“As we watch the first trauma unfolding, we have to keep an eye on the second and third impacts that will come up, and that obviously huge economic impact. It’s significant,” Gov. Tony Evers said March 18 during a statewide webinar called the Business Coalition COVID-19 Update.
Joining Evers were two department secretaries and one deputy secretary.
Previously, on March 18, Evers had ordered the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) to close schools. Gatherings of 10 or more people were prohibited March 17, with some exceptions: transportation, educational institutions, child care, hotels, military, law enforcement, food pantries, hospitals, long-term care facilities, grocery and convenience stores, utility facilities, job centers and courts.
Restaurants and bars may remain open only for take-out or delivery.
The webinar was called because of the impacts on businesses and workers throughout the state, including layoffs and some business closures.
Julie Willems Van Dijk, DHS deputy secretary, updated the number of new positive COVID-19 cases across the state and noted the pandemic was in “community spread” in three counties: Dane, Kenosha and Milwaukee. As of press time this week, the virus had sickened 416 people and claimed five lives this month.
Like Gov. Evers, the secretary reinforced the importance of “social distancing” — staying six feet from others and avoiding crowds.
She then addressed the number one concern of the webinar: how businesses should deal with employees showing symptoms of COVID-19.
She encouraged business leaders to monitor themselves and others for symptoms, and to stay home if they have any symptoms — coughing, sneezing and fever — and isolate from other family members. If the symptoms progress, they should call a physician to determine if a test should be conducted.
If they test positive, a public health officer will follow-up with an investigation at the business, but the business or factory would not necessarily be closed.
“I want to reassure everyone that if one person in an office or one person on a factory floor tests positive for this disease, it doesn’t mean you have to close the whole operation down,” Willems Van Dijk said. “But we would isolate people who were in close and regular contact with that person and have them go into isolation and self-monitoring until 14 days have passed, and the risk of infection wasn’t there.”
Regarding the number of COVID-19 tests being performed in the state, she said two public labs in the state — Madison and Milwaukee — are doing 500 tests a day. Other labs, including private labs, are scheduled to start testing in days or by this week.
Health care workers are being asked to screen or triage for testing based on symptoms and, risk and whether they are health care workers.
She said businesses can continue to use their cafeteria for seating of employees, but they would have to sit six feet apart.
Funding for businesses
Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) , spoke about a federal and state program to help businesses. She said more than $50 billion in federal funds are to be released to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for low-interest, 30-year loans capped at $2 million, available to entities with 500 or fewer employees. She anticipated the SBA would be able to take applications within 48 hours, and the state would assist.
“We expect the SBA to be inundated with applications,” Hughes said.
Concerning Wisconsin’s response, she noted WEDC on that day had rolled out a program to use $5 million to provide $20,000 grants to “targeted borrowers,” an initiative called “Small Business 20/20 (SB20/20) for rent and payroll expenses, including paid leave — sick leave, family leave and other leave related to COVID-19.
To be eligible, a business must have 20 or fewer employees.
A “drop in the bucket,” is what Hughes called SB20/20, but said it was the very first and she anticipated other programs would follow.
More information on SB20/20 is available at wedc.org/sb2020.
Caleb Frostman, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, said the state has waived a requirement that those on unemployment must search for a new job. The waiver will remain in effect for the next 60 days or during the duration of the emergency orders.
Frostman said the Evers administration also is asking the Legislature to waive a one-week waiting requirement before the unemployment benefit can be received. He said it is critical for those laid off to have some income as soon as possible to pay bills.
“Significant,” is how Frostman described the number he anticipates to be laid off.
He encouraged employers to explore the state’s “Work-Share” program used when hours are reduced across a unit and allow employees, if eligible, to qualify for a “pro-rated” unemployment benefit.
Frostman noted the highest amount one can receive on unemployment insurance is $370 per week.
Because the unemployment benefit is much lower than the worker’s typical take-home pay, he said some might want to look for other work, such as at grocery and delivery services that have seen a spike in demand.
Shelter in place order?
Asked on Wednesday if he was considering a “shelter in place” order such has those implemented in California and Illinois, the governor said would he also consider restricting “non-essential travel.”
On Wednesday, Evers said, he believed the orders on the schools and gatherings should have the anticipated impact of flattening the spread of the disease, but then on Tuesday, March 24, he issued a “Safe at Home” that greatly restricts travel and closes down non-essential businesses.
Regarding whether the state is considering delaying penalties on sales tax and other tax-related deadlines, Evers said, on Wednesday the secretary of revenue is considering options and then later, after the meeting, the state approved changing the tax filing deadline to July.
Asked what the business community can do to help the state, Evers said it is not the time to play “political games,” and all entities need to work together for a “good outcome.”