Forced to Move Forward

Not all leaders agree that it’s safe to reopen Dane County.

By Dayna Long

On Monday, May 25, a group of Madison Alders and Dane County Board Supervisors released a letter to County Executive Joe Parisi, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, and Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich expressing serious concerns about Forward Dane, a plan for reopening the city and county. Phase 1 of the plan begins today under the premise that the spread of COVID-19 is now under control.  Businesses, including hair salons and restaurants, are allowed to operate at 25% of their normal capacity. Phase 1 also permits gatherings of up to 50 people for religious and entertainment purposes, marking a major shift from previous public health policy, which strongly encouraged residents to limit their contact with anyone outside of their immediate household to occasional grocery runs.

What changed, if anything, to make such a dramatic shift advisable? That’s one of the things the letter writers would like to know. As it stands, they point out, conditions in Dane County do not actually appear to be improving: 

“For the past week hospitalizations and positive cases have been increasing in Dane County. The rate of new cases has been climbing steadily with a 5-day average at or above 10 cases per day since May 17th. More importantly, we are far short of having the testing and contact tracing capacity required to address every new positive case within a day or two. Absent these and other data-based criteria recommended by the COVID local plan developed by international epidemiology and public health experts, allowing indoor businesses to open seems to increase risk significantly and threatens the health and lives of both workers and customers.”

Further, the letter notes that Forward Dane does not contain criteria for reimposing restrictions should the spread of COVID-19 begin to spike. “While the plan acknowledges the possibility of increasing restrictions in the future, it fails to set objective and measurable criteria that would drive the decision making.”

Also at issue are the particular businesses being given a green light. Unlike a grocery store, where shoppers are not necessarily spending prolonged periods in close contact with anyone, hair salons and restaurants do involve spending longer periods of time indoors in close proximity with workers and other patrons, putting all involved – especially the workers – at greater risk. This is not to say that grocery shopping or working at a grocery store is risk-free either. But the risk is lower and must be weighed against the fact that groceries are a necessity. Getting a hair cut and going out to dinner are not.

In their letter, Supervisors and Alders contrast Forward Dane with the plan put forward by COVID-Local, A Frontline Guide for Local Decision Makers. The changes spurred by Phase 1 of Forward Dane do not occur until Phase 3 of COVID-Local’s plan, which includes much higher criteria than Dane County has currently met, including a majority of test results being returned within 24-hours and 90% of close contacts being identified, located, and tested within 24-hours of the first positive test result. 

Robust, efficient testing and contact tracing are essential pieces of protecting a community from COVID-19, which can be spread by individuals who are asymptomatic. Unless people are notified that they have been exposed to COVID-19, they might not even realize that they’re sick and can go on to infect many more people. It is crucial that people who are in contact with an infected person are notified and tested as soon as possible. 

How is Dane County doing in this regard? New drive-up testing at the Alliant Energy Center means that anyone who wants a test can get one, an improvement over the testing shortage that characterized the first few months of the outbreak in the US. But it can still take several days to receive a test result. And it is unclear that Dane County or the State of Wisconsin have sufficient contact tracing capacity. Forward Dane doesn’t even include any metrics regarding contact tracing. It only specifies that new positive cases will be notified of their test results within 48 hours.

In their letter, Alders and Supervisors note that in the last two weeks, 23% of new cases had no known source, which would indicate that a significant amount of spread is still occurring out of sight of any contact tracing that might be happening. This type of spread – community spread – is what led City and County leaders to begin shutting down schools and businesses and limiting services in the first place. It is hard to understand why the same conditions are now understood as a fine time for reopening.

Meanwhile, the stakes are very high – and also uneven. If Forward Dane represents a bad error in judgement, we will not all pay the same price. The Alders and Supervisors point out in their letter: 

“Reopening risks a resurgence of the virus, which is disproportionately affecting poor, uninsured, low-wage workers who have no alternative but to go to risky jobs that make them vulnerable. Multiple studies have shown that the pandemic has been devastating economically, especially in black and brown communities where people may live with extended families and are more likely to be employed in public-facing occupations such as food service, transportation, and home health care where they are more susceptible to become infected.”

Compared to the doors-wide-open approach adopted by Republicans in Wisconsin and in other states, any plan with phases and criteria can look like a reasonable approach, whether the criteria have scientific merit or not. But people’s lives and long-term health are at stake. This is the least acceptable moment for the low-standards produced by partisan loyalties in a bi-partisan system. We must be more discerning.

Director Heinrich, Mayor Rhodes-Conway, and Executive Parisi must respond to the questions posed by our Alders and Supervisors, who represent the cares and concerns of thousands of constituents that cannot be swept aside. Further, City and County executives must commit to a transparent collaboration with residents, workers, and our elected officials to create a plan that puts safety – not business – first.

In the absence of more information, more discussion, and more protections for workers and their families, Forward Dane appears to be an attempt to give a scientific veneer and a liberal politician’s stamp of approval to the callous rush to reopen business at all costs. For weeks, liberal leaders like Rhodes-Conway and Parisi have contrasted themselves to Republicans in order to assume a pro-science, pro-safety mantle that has ensured that many people will believe them now that they and Public Health Madison & Dane County have said that it is safe to go to church, to get a haircut, and to have dinner in a restaurant. 

If it is not safe, many of those same people – and more likely, the people who work at these newly opened businesses who don’t get a choice – will get sick. Some will suffer the serious and potentially life-long health consequences now being associated with this new disease. Others will die. It will no longer be possible or acceptable to point the finger at Trump, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, or Vos and Fitzgerald. 

Readers are encouraged to send emails to County Executive Joe Parisi, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, and all alders and supervisors to say that you do not support Forward Dane, requesting that they consider their colleagues’ questions and provide public answers and explanations, and collaborate with other elected leaders, workers, and community members on a plan that prioritizes health and safety over any other considerations. We deserve the safest possible plan, and not a plan that cuts corners to reopen the economy.

Emails:

Mayor Rhodes-Conway: mayor@cityofmadison.com
County Executive Parisi: Parisi@countyofdane.com
All Alders: allalders@cityofmadison.com
All Supervisors: county_board_recipients@countyofdane.com

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