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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The Dunn County Board has rejected a proposal from the Red Cedar Racing Association for a shortened season at the Red Cedar Speedway in the Dunn Count Rec Park.
The county board voted 11 “yes” to 18 “no” at the board’s June 17 meeting following a lengthy discussion about the merits of allowing hundreds of people to attend automobile races during the COVID-19 pandemic.
KT Gallagher of the Dunn County Health Department recently issued an advisory for gatherings of no more than 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors. The advisory also includes maintaining social distancing of six feet between people and the recommendation that people wear face coverings, especially where it is more difficult to stay six feet apart.
The Red Cedar Racing Association asked the county board’s facilities committee about being allowed to have a shortened racing season and provided options for guidelines and protocols, said Charles Maves, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the facilities committee.
The facilities committee recommended the county board approve the proposal, and since then, the Red Cedar Racing Association also has provided a checklist for procedures and a registration form that can be used to collect the names and addresses of attendees in case their contact information is needed for contract tracing after exposure to COVID-19, Maves said.
The racing association is “fully aware” that “all eyes are watching” how they handle the protocols and guidelines at the races. Allowing a shortened racing season will help the local economy, he said.
An amendment to the resolution that would include the checklist and the registration form was approved unanimously by the county board.
Sheila Stori, county board supervisor from Menomonie, asked how the checklist would be enforced.
The Red Cedar Racing Association Board of Directors will be enforcing the checklist. The audience and the people who attend the races realize the importance of following the rules, Maves said.
Stori said she believed the racing association would try to do everything possible to make sure the checklist is enforced, “but I don’t see how it can be safe.”
The recommendations for dealing with the pandemic are to have only small gatherings, so a large gathering at the Red Cedar Speedway would be contrary to the recommendations, she said.
Stori said she did not want Dunn County to be responsible for a spike in COVID-19 cases and noted spikes are currently occurring in nearby counties.
Tom Quinn, county board supervisor from Downing, asked if there was a procedure for scaling back or discontinuing the races if there is a problem.
The agreement with the racing association allows Dunn County to shut down the races for health issues, Maves said.
The recommendations from the public health department are “best practices,” Gallagher said.
The best practice for now is no more than 25 people indoors and no more than 50 outdoors. The proposal for racing would allow social gatherings on county property of 600 people, she said.
People gathering for the races could result in a “spreading” or “super-spreading” event, Gallagher said.
The proposal forwarded by the facilities committee initially would allow the grandstands at the Red Cedar Speedway to be filled to 50 per capacity, or 732 people, although in July, the capacity would increase to 100 percent.
Best practices in public health would be to not open county property to large gatherings, Gallagher said.
Four principals are involved in making the recommendations: there is no vaccine for COVID-19, there is no cure, there is no treatment and pre-symptomatic people can spread the virus, she said.
COVID-19 causes illness that ranges from mild, with few or even no symptoms, to severe. One of the Dunn County cases spent a month in the hospital and two weeks on a ventilator, Gallagher said.
Conditions can change very fast with COVID-19. Trempealeau County has doubled the cases to 80 in two weeks, she said.
Gallagher said her recommendations are data-driven, and one part of the data is hospital capacity for people who would need hospitalization for treatment of COVID-19.
Since Menomonie does not have any ICU beds, people must rely on the region. The western region of Wisconsin, which includes Douglas County (on Lake Superior), has 327 ICU beds. Typically, if hospitalization is required, people are sent to the Twin Cities, Rochester or Eau Claire, she said.
Another consideration is the capacity of the public health department to do contact tracing to prevent secondary spread, Gallagher said.
Gallagher acknowledged the mental health issues that can accompany isolation used to stop or slow the spread of the virus as well as problems with isolation in long-term care facilities.
Schools are also going to experience problems because some of the bus drivers and teachers will be in an older age group or there will be school staff with health problems making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Children often do not have symptoms but can be infected and spread the virus, she said.
Businesses are experiencing problems, too, and some of them may not re-open. Some people have been asked by their employers to bring their own disinfectants to work because the employer is having problems getting cleaning supplies, Gallagher said.
“There are no great options,” she said, noting that the health department’s recommendations must include the whole community and look at the whole picture.
Gallagher said she has been working with faith leaders and the business community on “harm reduction strategies” of how to do things more safely.
No one wants to get sick or spread the virus, she said.
Gallagher pointed out she had been hired for her experience and education in public health and had been hired to make the best recommendations possible.
Everyone loves the races — but is it safe? Gallagher asked.
Keeping the whole community safe includes the co-workers and family members of people who attend the races, she said.
Allowing the races but not allowing the Dunn County fair is being inconsistent, said Ann Vogl, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
Not listening to Gallagher’s recommendations also is being inconsistent, she said.
David Bartlett, county board supervisor from Boyceville and chair of the Dunn County Board, agreed that the approach to the races and to the fair were not consistent but also noted the fair is somewhat “different” because of the contracts that must be signed ahead of time.
Concerning Dunn County’s liability for allowing auto racing in view of a pandemic, Nick Lange, Dunn County corporation counsel, said he had reviewed the laws, and while he could not give a 100 percent guarantee, the county’s risk of liability is low.
Racing and attending the races is inherently dangerous, he said.
The Red Cedar Racing Association also is obligated by contract to reimburse the county for expenses, Lange said, adding that he was not sure about the cost for contact tracing.
As elected officials, the Dunn County Board has an obligation to protect the health, safety and welfare of county residents, said Diane Morehouse, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
Gallagher’s advice and other guidelines say allowing races is not a wise decision, she said.
Allowing a large gathering of people runs the risk of COVID-19 being carried home and out of the county, Morehouse said.
It sends a bad message to ignore the advice of expertise — to repudiate the advice of the public health director, she said.
Other race tracks have opened, and their racing has been successful with the guidelines used, said Steve Jenson, county board supervisor from Elk Mound.
Racing in Douglas County has not resulted in any spikes of COVID-19, although for the races in Douglas County, it also has been noted there are 300 hospital beds available in Duluth if there is an outbreak of the virus, Bartlett said.
One county board supervisor asked about the mortality rate for COVID-19.
The mortality rate is 3 percent, and with seasonal influenza, the mortality rate is a half a percent or less, Gallagher said, reiterating there is no vaccine and no treatment for COVID-19.
All together, 70 percent of the deaths have been among people 70 years or older, she noted.
There are guidelines for racing in Douglas County and in Shawano, but what is the compliance? Are 90 percent of the people wearing masks or zero percent, asked Tim Lienau, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
Photographs of racing in Elkhart Lake show not one person wearing a mask, he said, adding that he would be concerned about compliance.
Larry Bjork, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said that people who do not want to risk getting sick do not have to come to the races and can stay home.
Bjork noted he was a member of the committee that hired Gallagher.
Quality of life is important, and protesters in Menomonie were standing shoulder to shoulder, he said.
The racing association has submitted page after page of what they will do. The county board should allow people to do things to enhance the quality of life, Larry Bjork said.
Donald Kuether, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said he was surprised by the “cavalier attitude” about racing and not worrying if people get sick because there are ICU beds available.
Allowing gatherings of large groups of people is a “bad idea in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
States that have opened up quickly are seeing a surge of cases, Kuether said, adding he believes Dunn County is doing well because there have been no large gatherings.
Racing is not essential, he said, admitting he does not understand the willingness of 700 or 800 people to accept the health risk.
The proposal allows 700 people in the grandstands, and then the size of the crowd increases in subsequent weeks, said Mike Kneer, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
With that many people at the races, how will they follow the health guidelines? Kneer asked.
Kneer said he had asked himself what will happen if he votes “no” on the proposal.
Voting “no” would mean families would miss out on the rest of the racing season and there will be negative economic consequences, he said.
And would happen if he voted “yes?” Kneer asked.
Voting “yes” would mean creating more risk that people will get sick and creating more risk that somebody might die, he said.
According to the proposal from the Red Cedar Racing Association, the grandstands would have 75 percent occupancy July 10, 17, 24 (1,098) and 100 percent occupancy July 19 and from July 31 to the end of the season on September 27.
The Dunn County Board is not personally responsible for the health of people in the county, said Vaughn Hedlund, county board supervisor from Boyceville.
Everyone must make their own decisions, he said.
On the other hand, the risk with the number of people proposed at the races is “just too great … it’s too scary right now,” Hedlund said.
Kelly McCullough, county board supervisor from Menomonie, pointed out that even if there are relatively few cases of COVID-19 in Dunn County, the virus has not gone away and there is still a pandemic in progress.
The county board has received clear guidance from the Dunn County Health Department of no groups larger than 50, he said.
“This decision weighs heavily,” McCullough said.
Usually when the county board votes on an agenda item, it involves the spending of taxpayer money. This decision could involve funerals and permanent respiratory damage, he said.
The county board must be careful not to step on rights and freedoms, said Michael Rogers, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
Other people have a right to make their own decisions, and it “is not my right to take choices away from others,” he said.
Many illogical conclusions surround the issue, such as the virus can be spread in many ways, so we might as well have the races, said James Tripp, county board supervisor from Menomonie.
People can be allowed to make their own decisions about attending the races, and people can attend the races with no ill will, but they can still cause consequences for someone else, he said.
You cannot tell by looking at someone if that person has been exposed to COVID-19. People can make their own decision to go to the races, but it doesn’t stop there. Other people have no choice in the matter if they encounter someone who has been exposed to COVID-19 at the races, Tripp said.
And for anyone who thinks it is not the responsibility of the county board to protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the county, “the hell it isn’t,” he said.
James Anderson, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said he appreciated how closely the county board members had been considering the issue.
Anderson said he wanted “to do the right thing,” and for him, the right thing was to vote “no.”
Those who voted “no” on the proposal were Jody Kromrey, Donald Kuether, Kelly McCullough, Diane Morehouse, Tom Quinn, Gary Stene, Sheila Stori, James Tripp, Carl Vandermeulen, Ann Vogl, Jim Zons, James Anderson, John Calabrese, Jerry Hartung, Vaughn Hedlund, Sarah Kennedy, Mike Kneer and David Bartlett.
Those who voted “yes” on the proposal were Tim Lienau, Charles Maves, Tim Niehoff, Randy Prochnow, Michael Rogers, Ron Score, Robert Bauer, Gary Bjork, Larry Bjork, Steve Jenson and Brian Johnson.