Dane County on Thursday recorded its largest increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases over a five-day period since the county’s first case in February, prompting officials to amend current restrictions on gatherings and making it unlikely the county will loosen restrictions anytime soon.
The county announced Thursday evening that bar and restaurant patrons must be seated with chairs 6 feet apart and only with members of their own household. They may still operate at 50% capacity.
Also, gatherings on private property are limited to 10 people. Health officials said the county is still in Phase 2 of its tiered system for combating COVID-19, except for the new changes.
“This is a targeted amendment to address what we are learning during contact tracing interviews,” officials said in a statement.
Public Health Madison and Dane County reported 279 new cases between Saturday and Wednesday. There were 97 more cases reported Thursday over the previous day, which had 70 new cases.
The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases per day in Dane County is 47, an increase from 17 new cases per day in mid-June.
The total of both positive and negative daily COVID-19 tests in Dane County is up about 25% in the last 10 days compared with the first half of June, according to state data. The percentage of positive cases per test has been 3.4% over the past 10 days, compared with 2.9% in the first half of the month.
“We can’t speculate about the increase in cases, and it’s probably not due to just one thing, but in our contact tracing interviews it is evident that people are socializing more,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County. “The orders put in place are one part of a strategy, and we also need everyone to do their part to help prevent the spread of disease.”
The agency is investigating multiple cases associated with businesses near UW-Madison’s campus. For example, photos on social media last week showed a long line of unmasked students waiting to be let into a bar.
Half of the new cases come from patients in their 20s; 35 cases are connected with clusters — a number which may increase as contact tracers continue to interview patients; and 60% of the cases are from Madison.
“Given this steep upward trend in cases from the past several days, it is very unlikely we will meet the criteria outlined in the Forward Dane plan for moving to Phase 3 anytime soon,” Heinrich said.
Those metrics, outlined in the Forward Dane plan, will be updated on July 2.
“Our community is facing a real turning point with the now accelerating spread of COVID-19,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. “It’s here, it’s spreading, it’s affecting more young people, and the risk of getting it is no less today than it was in March when the state started Safer at Home. If we don’t wear masks, if we gather in groups, if we go out in public excessively, we are at risk of amplifying this dangerous virus.”
There currently isn’t state or federal guidance regarding when municipalities or counties should return to former phases of reopening, if cases surge.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the Legislature doesn’t have plans to reconvene during the summer months to address the rise in COVID-19 cases as of Thursday.
“Is there anything so monumental that would bring us back in? Nothing has risen to that level,” he said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal.
Fitzgerald said the Legislature is “in a holding pattern” and does not anticipate reconvening on COVID-19 legislation until updated financial estimates are completed to show just how much the pandemic has impacted state revenue and the economy.
The increase in cases comes after the county entered the second part of Forward Dane, the multi-phase plan to reopen businesses across Dane County.
Phase 2 went into effect June 15 and allowed for gatherings of no more than 50 people inside and no more than 100 people outside.
Businesses — including bars, restaurants and retail stores — across the county reopened at 50% capacity with social distancing and sanitation measures in place to mitigate the spread of the disease. Religious organizations are allowed to hold gatherings for worship and other activities at 50% capacity.
“Our public health department is the one who issues orders, but our collective actions give us the power to change how this virus impacts our community,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said.
The increase in cases also comes after Memorial Day activities across the county at the end of May, and after weeks of sustained protests in Madison following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis. Public Health Madison and Dane County was unable to confirm whether Memorial Day gatherings contributed to the increase in cases but said protests do not seem to be a factor.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Dane County was 1,350 according to the Public Health Madison and Dane County COVID-19 dashboard Thursday morning. The number of COVID-19 related deaths was 32, and 195 people have been hospitalized. There were 70,954 tests administered, and 868 people have recovered from COVID-19 as of Thursday morning.
Statewide there were 464 new cases reported Thursday and nine new deaths, bringing those totals to 26,227 and 766.
State Journal reporter Mitchell Schmidt contributed to this report.
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