Wisconsin governor orders ban on gatherings as virus spreads

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Monday ordered an indefinite ban on all gatherings of more than 50 people, a dramatic move that comes as state health officials said for the first time there was likely community spread of the new coronavirus to people who had not traveled to high-risk areas.

Evers said he was following recommendations made Sunday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in setting the cap at 50 people. President Donald Trump said Monday afternoon that crowds of 10 people should be avoided.

"I’d say avoid people, period," Evers said when told of Trump’s comment that came while the governor was giving a news conference. "Our mandate is around 50 and that’s where it will be until such time we need to change it. We believe it’s reasonable."

Enforcing the order will be up to local law enforcement agencies.

"Everybody’s taking it on the chin here," Evers said. "Whether it’s our kids in schools, whether it’s our small businesses, large businesses, restaurants, you name it. What we’re doing right now is making sure the virus doesn’t spread as quickly as it could."

The number of COVID-19 infections in Wisconsin increased Monday to 47, up from 33 on Sunday.

"The virus is spreading in Wisconsin," said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer with the state Department of Health Services’ Bureau of Communicable Diseases. Interviews with those infected showed for the first time that people were contracting it without having traveled internationally or out of state to places with a higher concentration of cases, indicating that community spread was "likely," he said.

Patients range from having little to no symptoms to several who are hospitalized and some who are critically ill, Westergaard said, although he didn’t have exact numbers.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said she was self-quarantining herself after being told on Sunday she had come in contact on March 8 with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Moore said she had no direct contact with the person and was showing no symptoms.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

KSTP COVID-19 outbreak coverage

The drive to stop the virus from spreading to the most vulnerable people and to not overwhelm health care systems with sick patients is pushing the urgent calls for people to avoid crowds or to just stay home.

The ban on gatherings of more than 50 people begins Tuesday and exempts airports, grocery stores, food pantries, childcare centers, pharmacies, and hospitals. The order will force bars and restaurants to limit the number of customers on St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday to no more than 50, or half of their licensed capacity, whichever is smaller.

Wisconsin Tavern League spokesman Scott Stenger said the order would be followed by owners of the 10,000 bars, restaurants and others who have liquor licenses in the state.

"It isn’t something that we’re excited about, but it could be a lot worse," Stenger said. "We hope we can make this work. We’re going to take it seriously. It’s still going to adversely impact our members."

Evers said he was considering calling the Legislature back into work to take up emergency legislation to help deal with the pandemic, but said there was no talk of postponing the state’s April 7 presidential primary election.

Evers’ order comes after he last week declared a public health emergency, and ordered all K-12 schools to close no later than Wednesday through at least April 6.

The state education department said Monday it would waive a state-mandated hours-of-instruction requirement for any district that requested it. The department was also working on a federal waiver to suspend state testing requirements.

Also, 29 Wisconsin residents who had been aboard a Grand Princess cruise ship docked in California after 21 passengers tested positive for COVID-19 returned home early Monday. They were escorted in state vans by members of the Wisconsin National Guard in the pre-dawn hours after landing at the Guard’s Volk Field airbase at Camp Douglas.

None of the passengers from Wisconsin have tested positive for the coronavirus but they will all self-quarantine for the required 14-day period, Evers’ office said.

Two Wisconsin residents remained in quarantine in Texas under the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, citing personal reasons, Evers said in a statement. Seven other passengers on the ship who are Wisconsin residents remain in HHS custody in California, Evers said.