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Dane County bans indoor gatherings in response to pandemic

MADISON (WKOW) -- Dane County has banned all indoor gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic just over a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

The ban on gatherings begins just after midnight and is effective until Dec. 16.

The new ban applies to what had already been defined as "mass gatherings." For example, concerts, festivals, meetings, training, conferences, performances, shows or sporting events.

Restrictions for businesses or other organizations such as schools, daycares, bars, restaurants and gyms, remain mostly unchanged, unless a particular activity is defined as a mass gathering in the order. READ THE UPDATED ORDER HERE

The new restriction is contained in Public Health Madison & Dane County's Emergency Order #10.

"Every gathering – no matter the size – is an opportunity for disease spread and prolongs the pandemic," said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County. "We are hopeful that with the community’s cooperation, we can bring our numbers down and avoid more hospitalizations and deaths."

The order comes just over a week before the Thanksgiving holiday. Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway advised people against getting together with friends and families during a press conference last week.

"We can't pretend this is going to be a normal Thanksgiving," Rhodes-Conway said Tuesday.

Rhodes-Conway sacrificing Thanksgiving gathering plans this year has a silver lining. "We want our loved ones to be around not for just this one holiday, but for all the holidays and all the special occasions of our lives."

Rhodes-Conway says the new order targets a culprit in the recent spike in COVID-19 cases. "The data clearly points to parties and indoor gatherings as a key contributor in transmission," Rhodes-Conway says.

Dane County Health Officer Janel Heinrich says there will be enforcement of the order, to include interventions if Thanksgiving gatherings include more than a single household. "If law enforcement were to find that, they would be able to go and say, 'Please disband,' and just report it to usand do any follow up after that," Heinrich says. "We're not asking for that to happen," she says. "We're asking for everyone to comply."

Rhodes-Conway says absent the new health order, it was possible an increase in positive cases after Thanksgiving could send stressed hospitals to a "tipping point." Heinrich suggested the beginning of the recent surge in cases followed two weeks after Halloween and more gatherings than expected, given previous gathering size limits.

In addition to the indoor gathering ban, outdoor gatherings have also been limited to 10 people.

The previous order limited outdoor gatherings to 25 people and indoor gatherings to 10.

The new order considers all in-person games, sports, competitions, group exercise classes, meetings, trainings, movies, events and conferences to be mass gatherings, according to a press release from public health.

Dane County or the city of Madison may issue fines of up to $1,000 for every violation of the new order. "As a result, anyone hosting a gathering could see significant penalties," the press release said.

"Our hospitals are overflowing, our doctors and nurses are running ragged, and everywhere we turn, there is sickness, creating a challenge like none other we have ever seen," Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. "These new orders, like their predecessors, are designed to call attention to where we are seeing the greatest amount of disease spread and interrupt the virus' quick movement through our community."

The new order effectively closes movie theaters, with a film screening considered a mass gathering, and rules out exercise classes at health clubs, unless they are staged outside.

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