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McDonell's Ella Haley hits at the net during a Division 4 regional final contest against Eau Claire Immanuel Lutheran last season at McDonell.

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Ted's Pizza Palace in Menomonie unveils makeover, celebrates 50th anniversary

A downtown Menomonie business is celebrating a half-century of success by showing off its new look.

Ted’s Pizza Palace on Main Street in downtown Menomonie celebrated the unveiling of their Main Street Makeover Monday morning as part of their 50th anniversary celebration.

The business was selected in January as the winner of the makeover contest put on by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. based on the business’ successful track record, its clear community support and the potential to grow as a third generation of the family joins the business.

Owners Jim and Kim Gounaikis said the new look and amenities allotted through the Main Street Makeover have been invaluable and will help Ted’s Pizza Palace thrive for another generation.

“Celebrating our 50th year in business is especially exciting with the Main Street Makeover win from WEDC,” Jim and Kim Gounaikis said in a statement. “We are so grateful to be chosen for this project and thrilled with how the makeover turned out. The design team was an absolute pleasure to work with. Their creativity, insightfulness and patience made the experience easy, fun and rewarding. We would like to thank all that made this dream a reality and look forward to sharing it for many years to come.”

As part of the makeover, the business received new branding inside and outside of the building, new inside cooking equipment and a revamped seating area with a new layout and lighting.

A team made up of WEDC staff and professionals from Retailworks Inc. worked closely with the Gounaikis family and staff from Main Street Menomonie to develop the restaurant’s new look.

The goal of the makeover was to update the interior of the restaurant to provide a better dining experience and redesign the storefront to make it easier for new visitors to Menomonie to discover the business.

WEDC CEO Missy Hughes said being able to be involved with this project has been humbling and is an example of the great things main street organizations can do in their communities.

“As I travel around the state and visit communities, the downtown organizations are so critical for helping the vibrancy of our main streets all around the state,” Hughes said. “It’s really important that our small businesses and our rural communities continue to be vibrant. We are thankful to have been able to partner with Ted’s on this project and wish them all the success in the world.”

The Main Street Makeover funds paid for a new awning and storefront tiles to enhance the restaurant’s façade, which was part of a larger renovation that included new counters, drink coolers, booths, paint, interior and exterior signage, murals, carpets and marketing upgrades.

The unveiling, which was set for earlier this year, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To keep customers and employees safe, the restaurant has adopted public health measures recommended by the WEDC, including utilization of facial masks, social distancing and take-out and delivery options.

Mayor Randy Knaack said having Ted’s Pizza Palace in downtown Menomonie is a great asset to the community and hopes the new makeover will allow the business to continue to be successful for another 50 years.

“Ted’s is a valuable part of downtown Menomonie and we really appreciate them being here,” Knaack said. “As a family business, you go through struggles and endure for so long and all of a sudden you get a chance at a facelift and a brand new look, that’s a great thing. It’s a wonderful asset to have in this community.”

“Ted’s is a valuable part of downtown Menomonie and we really appreciate them being here. ... It’s a wonderful asset to have in this community.” Mayor Randy Knaack

Wisconsin prisons have a lower rate of COVID-19 cases than most neighboring states

The overall rate of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin prisons is lower than rates among most neighboring state prison systems — although experts caution that differences in testing levels and policies between states makes such comparisons tricky.

Wisconsin Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said the agency’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons have been “extremely effective” despite a recent outbreak at the Green Bay Correctional Institution.

In an interview with WPR on Tuesday, he said Wisconsin’s prisons have seen far fewer cases within its general population than surrounding states in the Midwest, citing figures from an Aug. 20 memo to staff. As of Wednesday, the DOC had confirmed 773 cases, or 3.6 percent of the entire prison population.

Data compiled by the COVID Prison Project, which tracks data on testing and case rates for 53 prison systems across the country, also shows that Wisconsin has a lower rate of cases in the general prison population than most neighboring states except for Illinois.

Carr said a combination of testing, isolation and quarantine of those held in state facilities is being used to prevent the spread of the virus. Mass testing recently confirmed 264 cases among inmates — more than a quarter of Green Bay’s prison population — the majority of whom have recovered. The Department of Corrections has also confirmed 35 staff tested positive and 22 have since recovered.

A second round of mass testing for all facilities began in August, said Carr, and a third round of testing is planned to happen soon for Green Bay to monitor the spread of the virus.

“We think we’re on the downside of that curve, and we just want to make sure that we have everything under control,” he said.

He noted Waupun Correctional Institution, where 228 inmates tested positive this spring, has had no new cases of the virus among prisoners or staff after a second round of testing in late July. Carr said the vast majority of the population at Waupun and Green Bay have been kept safe from the virus.

“We have a pretty good track record right now when we have these small to medium-sized outbreaks of identifying those who are positive, isolating and quarantining them, so that they are confined to a specific location in our facilities,” said Carr.

Testing symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals is among recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control to prevent spread of the virus. Carr said they’ve also been following CDC recommendations on practicing good hygiene, wearing masks, and social distancing where possible. The DOC has said it’s also following guidance on limiting prisoner movements and group gatherings, moving people in cohorts, enhanced cleaning and suspending visitors.

However, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and progressive justice organizations have criticized the agency for its handling of COVID-19 and called for more widespread testing. In response to the most recent outbreak, ACLU staff attorney Tim Muth said in an interview Thursday that Wisconsin has done better than average when compared to other states. But he attributed the number of cases to luck rather than good planning.

“Within Wisconsin, we’ve seen that you do a round of testing and suddenly you can find 300 more cases,” said Muth.

Carr acknowledges the number of confirmed cases may be due in part to good fortune, but he also gives credit to the efforts employees have taken across the state’s facilities.

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, the founder of the COVID Prison Project and an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said Wisconsin has a fairly high testing rate.

“If you look at a high case rate and the high testing rate, then that sometimes can be an indication that you are doing a good job of mitigating risk in these settings,” said Brinkley-Rubinstein.

She said testing practices and policies related to mask mandates or quarantine procedures can also make a difference in case rates. She also stressed that testing and case rates are being calculated across entire systems, and that there can be variation in cases and implementation of policies at individual facilities.

Brinkley-Rubinstein also noted places most vulnerable to outbreaks are those with a higher proportion of inmates who are older or who have underlying medical conditions.

The ACLU of Wisconsin claimed more than 1,600 prisoners in the state’s prisons were 60 or older as part of a lawsuit it filed urging the release of vulnerable adults, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to take up their petition.

Race and ethnicity are also among risk factors for underlying conditions due to things like socioeconomic status and access to health care, according to the CDC. The federal agency has found cases are 2.6 times higher among African American or Black people.

Outbreaks at Green Bay and Waupun represent 63 percent of all cases that have occurred across state prisons, and DOC data shows Black inmates make up more than half the prison population in those facilities. John Eason, director of the University of Wisconsin Justice Lab, said the state has the highest disproportionate rate of incarceration in the nation for African Americans.

“Because racism has been hard-baked into the criminal justice system since its inception, we shouldn’t be shocked that prisons are going to help propagate or push the COVID rate higher amongst people of color, specifically African Americans,” said Eason.

Eason said increased testing in Wisconsin prisons should show higher incidence and death rates that mirror racial disparities.

The DOC does not currently publish data on the race or ethnicity of inmates who have contracted the virus as part of its online dashboard. Yet, Eason noted issues may arise with confidentiality by providing that information at the facility level.

Groups have called on Carr and Gov. Tony Evers to release those most vulnerable to the virus as the state’s facilities are already overcrowded and holding 20 percent more inmates than their design capacity.

Carr and the DOC have said their authority to release people is limited. So far, the agency has released around 1,600 people from supervisory holds or the Alternative to Revocation program at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.

The department has released 15 prisoners since March who were eligible for certain earned release. There have been 14 individuals who may qualify for release due to age or an underlying condition that were referred for review by the courts, of whom two have been released. Three have been denied early release and nine are awaiting hearings, according to the DOC.

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams runs with the ball while Minnesota Vikings defensive back Holton Hill defends during Sunday's game in Minneapolis.

CF woman faces murder-for-hire trial

A Chippewa Falls woman accused in a “murder-for-hire” scheme in September 2019 is headed toward a three-day trial beginning April 6.

Melanie S. Schrader, 48, 438 Olive St., is charged in Chippewa County Court with conspiracy to commit first-degree intentional homicide, which carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison and 20 years of extended supervision.

Schrader remains incarcerated in the Chippewa County Jail on a $250,000 cash bond; her previous request for a lower bond level was rejected. A status conference is set for Feb. 4, the last court date slated before the trial.

The case was originally slated to be heard by Judge Steve Cray, who has since retired, and the case was reassigned to new judge Ben Lane. However, Schrader’s new defense attorney, Michael Cohen, filed a request in August for a substitute judge to oversee the case; it has now been given to Cray.

According to the criminal complaint and police reports, Schrader repeatedly asked a friend to set up a meeting with a person who would shoot and kill Derek Gerke, the father of their child, in exchange for $10,000.

She met in person with an individual – who was actually an undercover agent from the Department of Criminal Investigation – and brought a down payment and pictures of Gerke, so the hit man would know who she wanted to be killed.

She was arrested Sept. 12, 2019. She waived her preliminary hearing June 4, and she entered a not guilty plea at a hearing July 29.

The Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation is assisting the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Department and the Chippewa Falls Police Department in investigating the case.

Her original defense attorney, Francesco Balistrieri, sought a lower cash bond last fall, saying Schrader has been taking her court-ordered prescription medication, and she is showing improvement. She also has two children, family in the area, and ties to the community, he argued.

However, Chippewa County district attorney Wade Newell said Schrader had repeatedly asked to hire a hit man, and “this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

Chippewa County gains 10 active COVID-19 cases over the weekend

Chippewa County gained 10 total active COVID-19 cases during the weekend, according to information on Monday from the Chippewa County Department of Public Health.

The county added 17 new cases while seven were released from isolation, leading to the 10-case gain to bring the active total to 46 overall and the cumulative confirmed case count to 420.

An additional 189 negative test results were added, moving that total to 13,036 with zero current hospitalizations (18 cumulative) and zero deaths in Chippewa County.

Statewide there are 10,201 active cases with 89,956 confirmed cases cumulatively. There have been 6,350 hospitalizations and 1,210 deaths to go with 1,273,607 negative test results statewide.