As March came to a close, Wisconsinites and the rest of the United States began accepting the reality that we’ll all stay in our semi-quarantine for several weeks or more because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

And Stoughtonites came up with all sorts of creative ways to interact with others and use their extra time together at home.

Families drew sidewalk chalk messages. Friends held virtual dinners or drinks using remote technology. And people in all sorts of situations looked for ways to help those hit hardest.

Businesses looked for ways to adjust their services to meet the needs of an entire population unable to venture out of their homes for anything beyond basic necessities and exercise. And local governments prepared to hold online meetings and deal with an upcoming election.

As state and national leaders repeatedly emphasized the importance of quarantine and social distancing to stop the virus’ spread, they prepared us for it to get worse – much worse than the 800,000 cases and nearly 40,000 deaths worldwide from COVID-19 as of Tuesday, March 31.

The illness, caused by the coronavirus, was declared a pandemic March 11 by the World Health Organization, setting off a series of previously unthinkable events, such as the cancellation of all organized sports, concerts and conventions and most travel. In two weeks, the United States took the lead in COVID cases, and by the end of the month, it was 50 percent higher than in Italy, which has had its health care system collapse under the burden.

To prevent that, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed a Safer at Home order, making official what had been expected for days – a prohibition on all nonessential travel and business, with the threat of fines and jail time for violators, though Stoughton police said that would be a last resort. The order included the closure of all playgrounds.

The state’s monthlong declaration was joined March 29 by President Donald Trump’s announcement that Americans should plan on staying home at least through April – a significant change from his prior insistence that people should be working again by Easter.

In Stoughton, residents generally held one another accountable to the recommendations given by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reiterated in Safer at Home – including staying at home whenever possible and keeping at least six feet apart whenever they did venture out.

As the national news began telling us who some of the victims were – including some familiar actors, singers and entertainers – Dane County on March 30 announced two sheriff’s deputies had tested positive for the virus.

As of that date, 187 people had tested positive countywide, with two deaths.

While some states considered postponing elections, as New York did, Wisconsin kept its statutory April 7 date but pushed for people to have absentee ballots mailed to them and moved back its online registration deadline. By March 31, nearly 1 million people had requested absentee ballots half as many as voted in the 2016 spring primary altogether.

In Dane County, Clerk Scott McDonnell’s March 25 call for people to mark themselves as indefinitely confined and skip uploading photo ID led to discussions of a possible investigation by the state elections commission.

Finding alternatives

All over Stoughton, people created neighborhood scavenger hunts and posted signs along U.S. Hwy. 51 thanking our doctors and nurses.

Groups organized ready-to-go lunches and fundraisers for local nonprofits and stuffed Little Free Libraries with food and supplies. The Stoughton Public Library posts virtual story time and book recommendations.

Unified Newspaper Group created an online signup for community helpers at ConnectStoughton.com, and within four days of announcing it on social media, 15 people had signed up to help vulnerable populations do basic tasks such as shopping.

Some carryout businesses operated at capacity while hotels emptied almost entirely. Salons, fitness studios and most other businesses that bring in customers were forced to close.

Manufacturers, limited but still considered essential, continued to operate, with some calling themselves and their employees lucky they could.

The one place people continued to frequently interact face to face was at grocery stores, which were exempt from the governor’s orders limiting mass gatherings to 10 people because they carry essential supplies. Shoppers continued to keep them busy, and they, in turn, limited purchases of essential items to prevent hoarding.

Stemming the impact

As researchers – including some in Dane County – looked for ways to provide more tests and better treatments, federal, state and local agencies and organizations prepared for big hits to the already strained health care system and economy.

On March 27, Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which will send money to individuals and businesses with the unanimous support of the U.S. Senate.

The governor and local agencies put out calls for personal protective equipment such as N95 respirators and ventilators, and the state eased regulations on health care licensing.

The state also enlisted the help of companies in Dane County and elsewhere to attempt to double its laboratory testing capacity of about 2,000 per day, though it remained limited to people showing symptoms, including fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

The state also changed eligibility requirements for home energy assistance. moved back its tax filing deadline to July to match the new federal date and suspended all evictions and foreclosures (which the county had done days earlier through law enforcement policy).

County chapters of Boys and Girls Club and United Way partnered with other community organizations to raise $1.3 million to cover essential needs of people.

Email Hub editor Jim Ferolie at stoughtoneditor@wcinet.com.