As businesses begin to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic in accordance with the Forward Dane plan, many still have questions about compliance and safety.

At the end of May, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce hosted a webinar with Madison Dane County Public Health staff to help explain the details. Zach Brandon, the Chamber’s president, took questions from business owners to pose to Madison Dane County Public Health’s Bonnie Koenig, environmental health supervisor for all licensed establishments, who has been the business liaison throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and Linda Seeger, the sanitarian for licensed establishments.

Brandon spoke about the Chamber’s partnership with the public health department, noting that the community has recognized three needs right now – public health, the economy and confidence.

At the time of the meeting, just 29 hours had passed since Forward Dane’s Phase 1 reopening, Brandon asked how businesses are doing.

Koenig said the public health department had taken many questions and heard concerns about how best to prepare. She reminded business owners that up to a 25 percent capacity is allowed, but they should set their own limits and can open with smaller capacities depending on how prepared they feel.

“Business owners are wanting to do the right thing and open with the best public health practices,” Koenig said.

Brandon asked for clarification about the limitations on mass gatherings. The guidelines limit outdoor mass gatherings for events at 50 people, along with 50 people for businesses. Private indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people. But some nuances exist within those guidelines.

If a public facility has several indoor spaces, it could host up to 50 people, excluding employees, for one event, Koenig said.

But if a facility with several spaces were hosting separate events, for instance a wedding in one room and a meeting in another, each event could have up to 50 people, she added.

“Now we have two different, distinct, mass gatherings happening, and they can happen simultaneously,” Koenig said. “However, we’d like to encourage those types of facilities to coordinate these gatherings as such that there wouldn’t be co-mingling and that they would be managing the traffic in and out to keep those groups separate.”

Businesses are not required to submit plans for events to be approved by public health, Koenig said. But she offered business owners the ability to contact her and Seeger to discuss the best practices.

Asked about the anticipated graduation from Phase 1 to the next phases of the Forward Dane plan, Koenig said health officials have been talking about future phases but could not say for sure what those will be.

Before the department rolled out Phase 1, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had launched its Reopening American guidelines, Koenig said. Upon review of those guidelines and Dane County’s metrics, health officials realized there was an opportunity to increase the commercial indoor gathering numbers.

“We did that that with evidence and guidance from the CDC,” Koenig added. “And if that were to be true moving forward, we would adjust that as well. But at this point, we can’t predict what the guidance is going to be at that time for Phase 2.”

Koenig added that as business liaison, future phases are on her radar.

Brandon talked about the importance of confidence as the reopening occurs.

“That opening plan will hinge on public confidence, both employee confidence and the confidence of the customer,” Brandon said. “As we start to ease the regulations, we need to boost confidence at the same exact time.”

Many business owners have asked about the 25 percent limitation on customers allowed in businesses. Brandon said from a consumer standpoint, 25 percent of people are eager to move quickly to try a new product. Another 33 percent will wait to see until how the first group did. Then, others wait until the product is tried and true.

“My hope is that phasing of natural human behavior will also fall in line with Phase 1 to Phase 2,” Brandon added.

He asked how the public health department would recommend boosting confidence.

Seeger noted that the health department has tried to promote businesses that have implemented safe practices on its website and on social media.

Brandon also asked about enforcement. Koenig said while the state’s Safer-at-Home order did include criminal penalty orders, the health department’s intent is to educate first and regulate if need be. Violation of the Forward Dane requirements could result in citations from the local municipality.

The phases are based on metrics including the percent of positive tests, cases per day and tests conducted, health care workers with COVID-19, community spread, symptoms and more. The health department will review these weekly to consider moving to future phases of the plan, taking into consideration how well the public health system can handle a growth in cases and how well it can contain infections.

As the new phases are introduced, the third phase will continue until widespread protections are available, Koenig said, for instance a vaccine or other effective treatments available to the community.

Koenig said for those in public health, that new normal is an exciting time because the public will continue the practice of heightened hygiene, cleaning and sanitation.

“And although we may not have to do the physical distancing anymore or the face coverings, some of those other practices are the very practices that also prevent food borne illness and other communicable diseases,” Koenig said. “So looking into Phase 4 and our new normal is actually an exciting time for public health in our community because I think we all will do better together having done this process.”

To view the Forward Dane plan, visit the public health department’s website at www.publichealthmdc.com.

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