Updates from the State Senate - May 11, 2020

In honor of the doctors and nurses in our local hospitals, the firefighters and EMTs in our local firehouses, and the law enforcement officers that patrol our neighborhoods, THANK YOU for everything you're doing for our communities during this pandemic.

As we've just passed National Nurses Day and International Firefighters' Day, as we enter National Law Enforcement Appreciation Week, and as we approach National EMS Week, please take a moment to thank these everyday heroes that are our family, friends, and neighbors.


Robert Cowles


Serving Wisconsin's 2nd Senate District







2-1-1 Wisconsin


COVID-19 has disrupted Wisconsinitesí lives in many different ways, but almost everyone has had to adjust due to this outbreak. For some, this change has caused troubles with putting food on the table, accessing broadband, or a new need for mental health services.


If you find yourself looking for assistance to navigate these disruptions or others caused by COVID-19, 2-1-1 Wisconsin is here to help. Text COVID19 to 211-211, call 2-1-1, or visit 2-1-1 Wisconsin online to learn more.



Dear Friends and Neighbors,


In just the past week, Wisconsin has begun to turn the corner on testing. For the first time, Wisconsin tested over 5,000 people in one day. Additionally, weíve recently begun seeing a downward trend on the total positive tests as a percentage of total tests compared on a day-to-day basis, in-part thanks to these increased testing efforts. While weíre seeing improvements, this progress hasnít been steady, and there is still a ways to go before we reach the stateís daily testing goal.


But weíre taking a step ahead, and itís an important step as we look to identify and manage the outbreak in our state. Meanwhile, thereís much more to share about COVID-19 and the stateís response, even though it hasnít been long since my last e-newsletter. Below are some of the latest updates and other information that I have for you this week.



Most Retail Businesses Allowed to Reopen or Expand Operations


Under Emergency Order 36 issued just a few hours ago, most retail businesses in Wisconsin can now open-up for in-person shopping with a few restrictions. This development comes after carry-out and curbside pickup orders were allowed to resume near the end of April. Issued by the Governor and his Department of Health Services, todayís order allows all retail operations with a designated entrance (i.e. businesses that are stand alone or in a strip mall, but not businesses inside a shopping mall with no entrance directly to their establishment) may now allow up to five customers inside their stores at any time. The order is effective immediately.


Businesses under this order must also practice social distancing to the extent feasible, and must review other protective measures recommended the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporationsí (WEDC) guidelines on business practices. If youíre part of a local retail establishment and have questions on this development, please review the order and review the guidelines on WEDCís website. If youíre still unclear about how to interpret these changes, please feel free to contact my office.


While this is a welcome step for Northeast Wisconsin, I believe that more needs to be done to ensure that small businesses are operating on a level playing field with larger retailers.



Advocating for Brown County


Wisconsinís county health departments and local providers are some of the best suited to address the scope of COVID-19 in their communities with help and guidance from state and federal health officials. In Brown County, their role and the important partnerships with their counterparts in different levels of government have been more noticeable as they address one of the largest outbreaks in the state, and one of the largest per capita in the nation. The rates in Brown County are substantially higher than any of other Counties in the 2nd Senate District.


The efforts made by the Brown County Health Department to identify cases, trace their contacts, and reduce the risk of spread has been substantial, and that doesnít come without cost. Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the State of Wisconsin received about $2.3 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, with about $0.3 billion going directly to Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee, and Dane County as required by the federal legislation. The remaining nearly $2 billion is for use at the Governorís discretion.


Congress, in setting up the Coronavirus Relief Fundís direct payments to local governments, only provided payments to local governments with more than 500,000 residents. In Wisconsin, that left 70 counties and over 1,000 municipalities and towns without any direct payments. While every county, from Bayfield to Kenosha has incurred expenses from COVID-19, perhaps no county has dealt with the outbreak quite like Brown County. As you can imagine, those financial, technological, resource and personnel implications are immense.


Near the end of April, I wrote a letter to the Governor asking for his help to provide funding from the $2 billion at his disposal to Brown County. This money could help to provide testing supplies, personal protective equipment, rental spaces for testing events or isolation centers, staff to trace potential exposures, and much, much more. I heard back from his staff and spoke with his Chief of Staff just a couple of days after requesting his help.


The takeaway I had was that they were still waiting to learn about the reporting requirements for the expenditure of the funds. While government accountability has always been at the forefront of my mind, I questioned this rationale as Iíve seen states like Iowa expend these funds for testing supplies, states like Utah purchase masks for residents, and states like Indiana provide some assistance to businesses and local governments. The Administration also asked for a more direct listing the expenses Brown County would like covered.


To keep things moving, last week, I provided additional follow-up, with help from Brown County, on what specific assistance they were seeking. Itís my hope that weíll be able to continue our dialogue early this week and that weíll be able to expedite a plan to help Brown County execute and pay for a plan to continue to control this outbreak and better prepare the county for additional response and financial support for the total response.



COVID-19 Testing in Northeast Wisconsin


In the last e-newsletter, I provided information on the new community testing site in Brown County for all symptomatic residents or workers in the County. Since then, Brown County has added a second drive-thru testing site at CASA Alba in downtown on the East side of Green Bay, along with their other location at the Resch Center.


Looking to expand their testing even further, starting today, all Ďessential workersí in Brown County are now eligible for a free COVID-19 test at one of these two drive-thru locations, even if they donít have symptoms. Learn more about this testing option and schedule a time (appointments are required) on the Brown County Health Departmentís website.


Thank you to members of the Wisconsin National Guard, Brown County Health Department, Bellin Health, and everyone else involved in the dramatically increased COVID-19 testing efforts in Brown County at these community testing sites! Because of their selfless work, more cases in our region will be identified earlier which helps to slow community spread and control the outbreak.


If youíre a bit further south, this Wednesday through Friday, a free COVID-19 testing site will be opened at Fox Valley Technical College. Anyone with symptoms can receive a test, and no appointments are necessary. Learn more about this community testing event in Outagamie County on the Public Health Divisionís website.


To help keep these community testing events straight and to learn about other sites in Northeast Wisconsin that may pop-up, the Department of Health Services (DHS) has created a site to learn about COVID-19 testing opportunities. Whether youíre looking to get tested because youíre symptomatic or are concerned about potential exposure, you can visit DHSís website, or you can always call your health care provider and ask about testing options.



Additional Funds for Wisconsinís Efforts


The COVID-19 pandemic hasnít just impacted residentís health and daily lives, but the economic impact on our state has been quite substantial. Some efforts from the federal government to provide assistance to the state and local governments, businesses, and residents in Wisconsin have been outlined in previous e-newsletters. This includes the additional $600 per week for unemployment benefit recipients and the Paycheck Protection Program, and the Coronavirus Relief Fund was discussed above, but these are just some of the funds available.


Iíve heard some questions in recent weeks about some of the other financial resources made available by Congress in Wisconsin, so I wanted to take a moment to give a brief overview of some of the other funding that our communities will receive.


As any parent, teacher, or school administrator knows, the changes to switch to virtual education hasnít been without a few bumps, but our local schools have quickly and largely successfully switched to this new form of learning. With that switch, however, comes expenses. $221 million will help K-12 schools absorb the cost of this shift and prepare for in-person instruction again without solely relying on taxpayers. An additional $187 million was made available for the UW-System given the expenses theyíll incur and the lost revenue theyíll endure, with half of that funding going to assist students.


Under the BadgerCare plan, state insurance plan recipients are provided an option for health care coverage. Normally a state-federal split for expenses, the federal government has increased their reimbursement rates to the states, saving Wisconsin an estimated $300 million over the next six months at the March enrollment rates. Other health services-related funding will bring an additional over $80 million into the state for things like community health centers, elderly care support, and more.


For those still headed into work each day with the closure of schools, finding child care services was often on the top of their minds. Fortunately, many child care providers in our area continued to provide their crucial service to help keep our communities going. Under a federal block grant, the state will receive $51 million which will be used to reimburse open child care providers who remained open, reward the employees of these centers, and assist child care providers that closed in making it through these difficult times.


While the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) has been trying to assist Wisconsinites in receiving their unemployment benefits, their expenses have undoubtedly increased. Nearly $20 million for DWDís administrative expenses, on top of the federal benefits for individuals, should be helping DWD to get the claims processed quicker and get these benefits out the door in a timely manner.


This is just a sampling of federal funding coming to Wisconsin, but other funds will enter our state as well. This includes $37 million in Community Development Block Grants, $46 million in housing assistance, $18 million in emergency food assistance, $200 million in transportation and transit assistance, including $6 million for the Green Bay Area and $7 million for the Appleton Area, and more.


In total, Wisconsin has already been designated to receive about $3.4 billion in federal funds, and even more could be coming our way. As Co-Chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, I have already made certain that the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau has been engaged in monitoring the distribution and expenditure of federal funds in Wisconsin from COVID-19, but this task is only getting started. With this challenge comes unique opportunities to help residents and small businesses get through this crisis. With that in mind, we must ensure that every dollar flowing through the state is both accountable and transparent, as we must prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of this funding.



Recent Changes at the DMV


As a reminder from a previous e-newsletter, if your driver license has expired anywhere from March 12th to present, itís been automatically extended 60-days. If this applies to you, that means that youíre coming up on your renewal date. Fortunately, it just got a little easier.


Starting today, residents will have the option to renew their driver license online if you meet certain criteria. This effort by the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), in response to COVID-19 closing most in person activities at their regional offices, will be the first time drivers donít have to head to the DMV for this routine task. You can learn more and apply for renewal on their website.


Other changes being made by the DMV will allow parents and guardians of 16 or 17 year olds to have the option to waive the road test requirements if their teenager meets the other necessary requirements for a driver license.


The DMV made this change considering the backlog of road test requirements, the very high passage rate for first or second time road tests, and the role that parents and guardians have in teaching the safe operation of a vehicle. You can learn more and apply for this waiver on the DMV website.



Assistance for Farmers


While farms have remained open throughout this pandemic, that hasnít made the financial situation being faced by many farmers any easier. As our regionís producers look to make it through these difficult times and wait until commodity prices return, I want to make sure they know that assistance is available.


Previously, Iíve talked about the Small Business Administrationís (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program. This loan forgiveness opportunity will provide farmers with the resources they need to help keep their staff on the payroll and provide some extra money for their expenses. Keep good records and follow the programís guidelines, to be eligible for tax-free forgiveness of the loan.


While it may have taken a while, farm owners and other agricultural businesses are now also eligible for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program from SBA. These low-interest loans are an important option for those who donít qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, but are looking for some help during these difficult times. Applicants are often eligible for a $10,000 advance on their loan to help with more immediate needs.


To learn more about the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program and to apply, please visit SBAís website. To learn more about other technical, operational, and financial resources for farmers during COVID-19, please review my April 24th e-newsletter.


Finally, farmers and others working in agriculture looking for advice on navigating these financial assistance options from SBA are encouraged to watch a webinar starting tomorrow at 2pm hosted by the UW-Madison Division of Extension and the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center. Learn more about this webinar and find a link to join here.



Emergency Medical Care is Safe and Available


Wisconsin hospitals are looking to remind and encourage patients to use the emergency department or urgent care if they feel itís necessary. Patients should not hesitate to seek emergency care if they are experiencing symptoms or other ailments. Our stateís hospitals and clinics are clean and safe, and are taking all necessary precautions to continue providing top-notch care for patients and their families.


For less urgent, yet important care, patients should contact their provider to discuss when they can schedule a virtual or in-person visit. While in-person visits are still an option with some providers, virtual care in the comfort of your own home through telemedicine was already a growing field before the COVID-19 outbreak and has continued to grow as weíve seen the importance of access to virtual visits.


Recently, ThedaCare was awarded an $182,531 grant from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) to expand their telemedicine services for patients in the Clintonville area. This is just one example of area provider trying to expand their care options for residents in Northeast Wisconsin, both during the pandemic and after this is over. For more information on the telemedicine program and the grant to ThedaCare, visit the PSCís website.



Mental Health Awareness Month


In such uncertain times, everyone is susceptible to anxiety, stress, and fear. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an annual reminder that these concerns are nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. If youíre looking to learn how to better cope with the COVID-19 outbreak or any other mental health concerns, please remember that youíre not alone. One in five people will deal with mental health troubles at some point in their life. These people are our family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.


This anxiety, stress, and fear doesnít have to ruin your day. Find some tips and resources for additional help on the Resilient Wisconsin website. Find other resources and download the 2020 Mental Health Month Toolkit on Mental Health Americaís website.



COVID-19 Connect Site and App


Some students and professors at UW-Madison didnít just take note of the changes around us from COVID-19, they decided to do something about it. Working with other stakeholders, they created a website and mobile app to provide virtual social connections and messages of support along with the latest news and additional resources to help users navigate these difficult times. The app will be available for downloading in just a few days, and in the meantime, you can visit the COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect platform online.



Until Next Time


My staff and I continue to remain available to assist with questions you may have involving state government during this difficult time. While we may not always have the answer right away, weíll do our best to assist with your questions and concerns involving COVID-19 or other issues related to state government.


To find the most up-to-date information on the Governorís actions along with each state agencyís role in this outbreak, Iíd encourage you to visit this state website. To find the most up-to-date statistics on confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, visit the Department of Health Servicesí website. You can also find the information Iíve shared in my last nine e-newsletters on COVID-19 by visiting my website.


And as always, please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns you may have, and be sure to connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for regular updates on Coronavirus and more from around the 2nd Senate District and in the State Capitol.


Thanks for reading!



Senator Robert Cowles
Proudly Serving Wisconsin's 2nd Senate District




Mailing Address: P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 | Office: 118 South, State Capitol

Office: (608) 266-0484 | District: (920) 448-5092 | Sen.Cowles@legis.wisconsin.gov




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