By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The Dunn County Board’s facilities committee has recommended that the county board allow the Red Cedar Racing Association to hold races at the Dunn County Rec Park with certain restrictions in place.
Some of the restrictions approved by the facilities committee at the June 9 meeting to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus include allowing a crowd of 50 percent capacity in the grandstands (732 people); temperature checks for people entering the grandstands and the pit area (anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit will not be allowed in); and not allowing people from the grandstands to go into the pit area after a race for a period of one month.
The facilities committee recommendation went to the executive committee for a recommendation to the Dunn County Board.
The executive committee met “in person” at the Community Services Building/Dunn County Government Center June 10. Anyone who wanted to attend the executive committee meeting was required to call the county manager’s office before the meeting to answer COVID-19 screening questions and was required to wear a mask while in the building.
The Dunn County Board meets June 17.
The facilities committee met virtually June 9 using the Zoom online platform.
The Red Cedar Racing Association has put together another set of operational guidelines after the facilities committee reviewed the first set of guidelines and “asked some good questions,” said Mark Thomas, president of the Red Cedar Racing Association.
Nine nights of racing remain in the season, along with two special events, he noted.
The question will be how to maintain social distancing of six feet between people in the grandstands, said Don Kuether, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee.
Every other row can be eliminated to achieve 50 percent capacity, but that still leaves the problem of people sitting next to each other, he said, noting the grandstand would have to be at 25 percent capacity to maintain the proper social distancing.
Many families come to watch the races, and they would have been in quarantine together, so sitting together is not an issue, Thomas said.
Thomas acknowledged that the Dunn County Health Department is recommending groups of 20 or less outside and said the Red Cedar Racing Association will “do what we have to do to get started.”
Other race tracks are recommending six feet of social distancing but it is not mandatory, although the racing association could mark off and close spots at the Dunn County Rec Park if necessary, he said.
Some of the race tracks, such as the track at Rice Lake, are not doing anything to protect spectators from COVID-19, while others are taking precautions, encouraging social distancing and doing extra sanitizing at the concession stands and the restrooms, he said.
One of the issues is assessing health risks in relation to people’s personal rights, said Mike Rogers, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee.
“We live in a free country. We should let people make their own choices,” he said.
If someone’s choice affects other people, however, then that is a different situation, Rogers added.
Rogers also wondered if the county had the right to limit racing after the state Supreme Court’s decision on May 13 to overturn the Safer at Home order from Andrea Palm, secretary designee of the state Department of Health Services.
The state’s order and the local health officer’s ability to prevent health hazards and prevent the spread of communicable diseases are two different issues, said Nick Lange, Dunn County corporation counsel.
The Dunn County Health Department is taking an advisory approach right now, but if there are outbreaks of COVID-19, the county’s health officer has the authority to shut down businesses to protect the health, safety and welfare of county residents and can compel cooperation in contact tracing, he said.
Dunn County cannot pass an ordinance that says “no racing,” but the Dunn County health officer can determine, by law, if the risk is unacceptable, Lange said.
If racing events become “a problem area of contagion,” the health officer has the authority to take action to prevent communicable diseases, he said.
The county’s contract with the Red Cedar Racing Association also allows Dunn County to stop the racing events for health reasons, said Paul Miller, county manager.
If the county decides to restrict racing, it is the county’s right to operate county facilities as the county sees fit, he said.
Charles Maves, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the facilities committee, asked if the cost of contract tracing could be assigned to the Red Cedar Racing Association.
If the cost of contact tracing was part of the agreement with the racing association, then the cost could be passed on, Lange said.
What risk of increasing the number of COVID-19 cases is being introduced by opening the racing season and what about taking temperatures? asked Tim Niehoff, county board supervisor from Menomonie and a member of the facilities committee.
Someone will be checking temperatures at both ticket stands and at the pits, Thomas said.
The Red Cedar Racing Association wants to have the most comprehensive and safe plan as possible, he said.
The racing association is willing to add to the plan to satisfy the county. The Red Cedar Speedway has had 47 years of racing, and “we are looking forward to a long future,” Thomas said.
News reports indicate 40 percent of the people infected by COVID-19 are asymptomatic and can spread the virus without knowing they have it, Kuether said.
Taking temperatures will keep people out of the grandstand who are actively sick, but it will not keep out people who have the virus and are asymptomatic, he said.
The Ludington Guard Band’s summer concerts have been cancelled, and the July 4 celebration in Menomonie has been cancelled. Church services also are being held virtually, Kuether said.
“Why is racing something we think we could do when other (events) are cancelled?” he asked.
The hope would be that people with compromised immune systems or who are susceptible in some way to COVID-19 would not go the races, but “why regulate people doing their own free will?” Rogers asked.
The concern about COVID-19 is not so much for those attending the races, but what about when they go elsewhere? Maves asked.
If they go to the races, pick up the virus and then spread it to others, “it’s what happens afterwards, and we need to protect our citizens,” he said.
After the Supreme Court decision May 13, there was a “jump” in cases in adjacent counties, said KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Public Health Department.
The number of cases in St. Croix County and Eau Claire doubled after businesses started opening up again, although the rate of infection has started to come down in the last two weeks, she noted.
It remains to be seen if the protests following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis will make a difference in the number of cases, Gallagher said.
If people contract COVID-19 at the races, it is the secondary spread that is concerning. The issue will be how to contact 600 people in 48 hours, she said.
Overall, Dunn County is ready to “turn the dial” with groups of 10 people indoors and 20 people outdoors, and if the number of COVID-19 cases stay steady, then the group sizes can increase incrementally by going to 50 and seeing if the numbers hold up, then to 100 and then to 150, Gallagher said.
The Dunn County Rec Park is a county-owned public facility and public health is the county’s responsibility, Miller said.
People can do a personal risk assessment for COVID-19 and decide what they want to do, but “personal liberty is never complete,” he said, adding that people are not allowed to do a number of things in the interest of the public good, such as not smoking cigarettes inside of businesses.
“Public health and safety trumps personal risk assessment,” Miller said.
The issue is whether the county is willingly setting up a situation for the spread of COVID-19, he said.
Facilities committee members also were concerned about family members who would be in the pits during racing but who might go up to the grandstand at some point.
Thomas assured them that the family members of racers would either be allowed into the pits with a pit pass, or if they were dropped off by the grandstands, to remain in the grandstands.
Ron Score, county board supervisor from Boyceville and a member of the facilities committee, asked about the number of racers and family members.
The races average 107 racers, and a typical pit crew might be four family members, Thomas said.
The Dunn County Rec Parks grandstands hold 1,464 people.
At 50 percent capacity, that would be 732 ticket sales, Maves noted.
The Dunn County facilities committee approved a motion recommending the county board authorize the 2020 racing season for the Red Cedar Racing Association following the operational guidelines that include 50 percent capacity in the grandstands; taking the temperatures of racers, crew members and people in the grandstands; and no gatherings of people from the grandstands in the pits after the races are done for one month.
Kuether voted “no” on the motion.