We are all experiencing something that we have never been through before. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives, kept us from our routines and altered the way we interact with each other.

This column is not meant to be your one-stop resource for information because, frankly, there is no way that I can assure you that the things I know will be accurate tomorrow – or even an hour from now. It is best to monitor the pandemic via the news and to keep an eye on websites and social media for the areas that most concern you. These resources will keep you up-to-date better than I can.

As your state senator, I am trying to stay on top of the issue. However, it is important to note that any government response in this emergency period must come from the executive branch of our government. This means that the governor and state agencies must act – and they are. Right now, there is no solid legislative action required to respond to or manage this crisis. The executive branch, including the Department of Health Services (DHS) and other state agencies have authority to suspend rules, spend state tax dollars and do just about anything they need to do to respond to this crisis. They do not need approval from the legislature during this time of emergency.

In the future, I am certain there will be legislative action necessary but, right now, the agencies have what they need to respond. In fact, the state Senate has postponed our scheduled floor period which was supposed to be March 24, 2020. We will come back in when it is safe for our members, our staff and the public to participate.

In the meantime, my team and I are working to understand the executive orders, communicate with the administration, answer questions and connect local people and organizations with information and state agencies. We are participating in regular conference calls, monitoring bulletins and orders and passing along information. This is our essential role right now.

It is very important to read and understand the executive orders that are coming out from the governor, especially the order to prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. This order is meant to prohibit gatherings of people and to close restaurant dining rooms, bars and shopping malls to prevent the spread of the illness. As of today (3/20/20), there are many exceptions to this prohibition that you should be aware of. The following list of exceptions to the 10 person limit is from the governor’s executive order:

  1. Transportation – airports may remain open, as well as mass transportation.
  2. Educational Institutions – may be open for non-instructional purposes, such as medication pickup, childcare, providing meals and while operating as polling places.
  3. Childcare – childcare centers may remain open. They were most recently limited to (as of 3/19/20) 10 staff and 50 children.
  4. Hotels and Motels – may remain open, but restaurants must only offer take-out and delivery.
  5. Government – Military, National Guard, Law Enforcement, Correctional facilities, government service centers, courts and offices may remain open.
  6. Relief Facilities – food pantries, shelters, day center and other facilities may remain open.
  7. Residential Buildings – apartment buildings may remain open.
  8. Retail – gas stations, auto repair, etc. where people do not congregate and spend less than 10minutes may remain open.
  9. Healthcare – hospitals, clinics, home healthcare, personal care, hospices, nursing homes andtreatment centers may all remain open. However, they have strict rules and protocols that they areenforcing on their own.
  10. Facilities for voting – libraries, schools, etc. when operating as polling places may be open.
  11. Food Establishments – restaurants may be open for take-out or delivery. Grocery stores,convenience stores and farmers markets may remain open, but they cannot offer self-service operations such as salad bars or buffets. No customers are allowed to self-dispense unpackaged food.
  12. Commercial and non-profit entities – private offices, manufacturing, processing, distribution and production facilities, utilities and job centers may remain open.

With all of these exceptions, we are reminded to telework if possible, wash our hands frequently and keep distance between each other when we are out in public.

I have been actively connecting with state agencies to flag unique issues for people, businesses and organizations in the 17th District. I am particularly concerned about agriculture. There are a lot of rumors and concerns circulating in our communities. I have connected with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) on a number of issues, including about farmers having to dump their milk and livestock auctions that need to keep running for our food supply to keep up.

DATCP is regularly communicating with a wide variety of stakeholders to manage their response and clear obstacles. They recommend that farmers, producers and others connect with their professional associations such as the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF), Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU), Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, the Dairy Business Association (DBA), the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) and others for real time, accurate information.

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) recommends that anyone who thinks they might qualify for Unemployment Compensation should simply apply and they will sort it out because there are many unique circumstances right now. Apply at: https://dwd.wisconsin.gov/uiben/apply/.

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is asking everyone who is able to keep their children home – and out of daycares – to do so. They are encouraging us to allow people who perform essential services such as healthcare, corrections, municipal services, etc. to utilize day cares. The availability is limited.

Several municipal leaders have also reached out to me about the upcoming election on April 7, 2020. The Wisconsin Elections Commission has already decided to keep this election day as scheduled and they are offering resources to municipal clerks to help manage it in light of the pandemic.

I would highly recommend requesting an absentee ballot for the election. The deadline to request a ballot to be mailed to you is April 2, 2020. You can do this online at www.myvote.wi.gov or send a letter to your municipal clerk requesting an absentee ballot. If you do the latter, include a copy or photo of your driver’s license, passport or other identification.

You can also “Early Vote” or complete an in-person absentee ballot at your municipal clerk’s office. You will need to check with your clerk for hours and availability.

If you are a healthy person who is not in a high-risk group, you might consider volunteering to work at the polls on election day. Many of our regular poll workers are in the high-risk group for this virus and should not be working at the polls. Many of us suddenly have a lot more time on our hands – if this is you, consider volunteering. Call or email your municipal clerk and make the offer. You may be needed!

You may be needed in other ways, I have heard from several Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRCs) who need help delivering meals for Meals on Wheels. I have also heard that the American Red Cross is desperate for people to give blood because blood drives are cancelled all over the country. If you are healthy and at low risk, consider where you could offer to step in for those who cannot – and should not – be exposing themselves to the virus.

Serve Wisconsin just launched a portal for volunteer opportunities related to the COVID-19 response: http://volunteerwisconsin.galaxydigital.com/need/?s=1&need_init_id=2976 

At the time of this writing, most of the opportunities were in Dane County, but this will expand. It is also available to organizations and agencies to post opportunities and needs. Take a look!

I would also recommend finding a local restaurant that is doing take-out or delivery meals and give them some business. Treat yourself to a local fish fry or hot lunch to support these small businesses that are struggling with their dining rooms closed!

In times like these, our tendency is to demand that the government “do something” about it. I assure you that our government IS doing as much as it can to respond to the virus.

But we need to “do something” too. We need to stay home if we are sick. We need to find ways to work, shop and participate in society remotely or without exposing ourselves and others. We need to support local businesses in any way we can. We need to remain calm and do our part.

Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) represents Wisconsin’s 17th Senate District.