In his role as Dane County Executive, Joe Parisi has led recovery efforts in the aftermath of floods, tornadoes, power outages and other calamities.
The COVID-19 outbreak is something altogether different. Parisi believes more time is needed to return to normalcy compared to other crises he’s witnessed.
“It’s interesting. None of us expected to be living through a pandemic,” said Parisi. “A lot of the lessons we learned from those events do apply. It’s just a longer horizon.”
One thing that’s become apparent to Parisi is that the county as a whole is “very capable” of dealing with the coronavirus. In getting through past challenges, the county has forged relationships with a host of community providers, and the cooperation between such entities “really helped us spring into action,” Parisi said.
Parisi acknowledges that many in the county are hurting and are frustrated with how long it’s taking to reopen everything. He said approximately 30,000 Dane County residents have applied for unemployment.
In response, the county has contributed $3 million to Second Harvest, allowing the nonprofit to purchase food from providers for distribution through its food bank systems, as food supply chains have broken down.
Parisi is impressed by how communities are “coming together to look out for each other.”
Not only have governmental and health care entities done their part, according to Parisi, but he also noted how grassroots efforts have made a difference. Parisi talked about how churches and senior citizens organizations have helped feed those struggling to make ends meet.
During this time, the county still has to conduct its usual business, which includes coming up with its annual budget. How Dane County is going to plug a $20-$30 million hole due to a drop in service taxes brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown is one of the biggest issues.
Parisi said that with the pandemic, he’s been working seven days a week to meet the new challenges of his office.
“It certainly can be exhausting, but I view it as an honor to be part of the solution,” said Parisi.
Dane County was the first county in the state to have a positive case of the coronavirus, he noted, and the 12th nationally.
“We kicked into action before a lot of other areas,” said Parisi. “It was an advantage for us to see how to best get ahead of it.”
Internally, officials looked at how county government can be a safety net for residents and provide vital services, according to Parisi.
Parisi talked about the measures the county took early on to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Along with making adjustments with its information technology department to allow employees to work remotely, the county also closed its nursing home, Badger Prairie Health Care Center, to visitors and declared a state of emergency, which could help local municipalities recover funds lost due to COVID-19. It remains in place.
While the Dane County Jail has had coronavirus outbreaks, Parisi said measures have been put in place to trace their origins and keep inmates separated as much as possible.
Another move was made to repurpose the Alliant Energy Center as an alternate care facility just in case COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals.“At this point, there’s no need to activate it, but it stands ready should the need become acute,” said Parisi.
In the meantime, the facility has partnered with Second Harvest to allow the food pantry to use its space for packing and storage. The county has also decided to use the Alliant Energy Center as a COVID-19 testing facility.
Parisi said Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order has resulted in hospitals having cleared space for coronavirus cases “to their disadvantage,” said Parisi, as they’ve had to turn away profitable elective surgery work. That accessibility remains, according to Parisi, who said that when he last checked, local hospitals were operating at 60 percent capacity.
As for the economy, Parisi mentioned the county’s $10.8 million funding assistance for small businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19.
“It’s a lifesaver to throw to them to help them through these challenging times,” said Parisi.
Also, the county recently announced that it’s dedicating $3.5 million to childcare facilities in Dane County, which number about 500. Parisi said they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19 and with any restart of the economy, there will be a need for adequate childcare. Grants will range from $1,400 to $15,000, depending on the size of a childcare business.
An additional $700,000 has been allocated by the county and the City of Madison for the Public Health Department in response to the pandemic. Eight new positions will be created.
Parisi said more initiatives will be rolled out from multiple levels of government when it’s determined what they should focus on with funding efforts. So far, Parisi said he’s been receiving positive feedback on the county’s COVID-19 actions.
For Parisi, though, getting used to the Safer at Home quarantine restrictions has been an adjustment.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Parisi, who’s been meeting virtually with different entities. “I’m used to being out in the county physically. There’s been a transition to being available for things like Zoom meetings, but I’m getting the hang of it.”