The experiences people in Fitchburg and the rest of the country have had the past month would have been practically unimaginable just weeks ago.

As the novel coronavirus swept from Asia to Europe and then America, the United States took the world lead in confirmed cases of COVID-19 by a nearly 3-1 margin. That highly contagious respiratory illness has to date claimed the lives of more than 83,000 people, with 95 percent of those deaths coming after the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic March 11.

Since then, efforts to stop the virus, which spreads through airborne particles, forced schools and many Fitchburg businesses to close temporarily, events large and small to be cancelled, parks to be restricted and people to stay in their homes under most circumstances. Many of those things were already happening before the governor’s March 24 executive order put the power of the state behind them all.

Though some hoped for a quick shutdown and a return to business as usual, by the end of March, it became clear that we’re all going to be stuck in our semi-quarantine for several weeks or more.

By the second week of April, the sight of people wearing face masks had become commonplace and a fight over whether to postpone a statewide election came to a head, with a steady stream of voters at Fitchburg polls that had taken on a vastly different look.

In recent weeks, much of the usual springtime activity has been halted. Playgrounds and parks that would normally be teeming with children as the weather has warmed are closed, and traffic on many of the city’s main roads is noticeably reduced.

Businesses whose parking lots are usually full are now empty, and paper signs hang in the windows of businesses – either apologizing to customers for being closed, or attempting to get attention because they’re still open. Many restaurants and bars have converted their dine-in business to carryout, curbside and delivery.

The forced closure of all nonessential businesses – though there’s a long list of exemptions – has put many people out of work and created worry over the economy at all levels of government.

On March 27, with the economy slowed drastically, President Donald Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which will send money to individuals and businesses to get through the crisis, with the unanimous support of the U.S. Senate. State and county government also chipped in with relief funds, eased regulatory requirements and other assistance.

Dane County increased its total allocation to the Small Business Pandemic Support Grant Program from $250,000 to $800,000 in a matter of days after receiving hundreds of responses. And the Madison Community Foundation distributed $4 million to area nonprofits to prepare for extreme needs or make up for sharply limited fundraising efforts.

In Fitchburg, mayor Aaron Richardson declared a city emergency March 16, and the Common Council ratified that decision March 24 and gave him executive powers. That allows him or his staff to spend up to $250,000 for emergencies. Through April 7, he’s authorized about $5,000 on postage and some staff overtime, though the cost hasn’t yet been calculated, Richardson told the Star on April 8.

While many other local governments in Dane County suspended their meetings for weeks to comply with the governor’s Safer at Home order, Fitchburg used a combination of in-person and videoconference attendance March 24. Meanwhile, City Hall is closed to the public, as are the library and the senior center, though exceptions are being made for city meetings while it remains safe to do so.

Rapid changes

In five days last month, the coronavirus went from a curiosity that many people in Fitchburg and elsewhere shrugged off to a national emergency and even a source of terror.

It gained the attention of most Americans the evening of March 11, when the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for the virus. Two days later, almost all major American professional and college sports were canceled and a handful of high-profile positive tests, including actor Tom Hanks and several other basketball players, made the spread of the virus more tangible.

In Wisconsin, all schools were either closed or soon to be closed by March 15 and high school sports and other school activities canceled. On March 17, state orders prevented restaurants, bars, churches and many other businesses from functioning by restricting to 10 the number of people allowed to gather.

By the time Evers announced his plan to sign the “Safer at Home” order on the morning of March 23, more than 10,000 people had signed a Change.org petition asking for it.

While some people violated or pushed the limits of the governor’s orders to avoid all gatherings outside of immediate households and any non-essential travel or work functions, most people in the area seemed to take the warnings seriously.

As stores got more stringent about social distancing, they posted signage urging customers and employees to take more health precautions.

People in general continued to exercise outdoors and enjoy the sunshine, sometimes socializing by having conversations from their front lawns.

Highly contagious

What’s made the coronavirus so scary and prevalent is how easily it spreads. Because of a long duration between contracting and showing symptoms – often as much as two weeks, and sometimes not at all – people can carry and transmit it to many people without knowing it.

The virus typically is most deadly to older people and those with underlying health conditions, but its greatest impact has come when the number of cases overloads the health care system, requiring far more ventilators and intensive care beds than hospitals can provide. That was most evident in Italy, where more than 10 percent of the more than 135,000 infected had died by April 7.

In America, the death rate is far lower, with just over 12,000 dead among the 400,000 who have contracted it, but experts projected the peak was still a couple of weeks away. In Dane County, more than 300 cases had been confirmed as of April 7, and of the more than 2,500 cases across the state, more than 100 have ended in death.

As the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that people can pass the virus by simply speaking to one another in close proximity, it recommended people wear face masks – even homemade cloth ones – any time they go in public, which for most people was to work or the grocery store.

Political battles

Meanwhile, American politicians continued to fight over how to provide hospitals and communities with the resources necessary to combat the spread of the disease.

They debated projections that COVID-19 could claim 200,000 or more American lives this year and how much our efforts to stay at home and practice social distancing might pay off.

Closer to home, a legal battle raged at an ever increasing pace in the days leading up to the April 7 election, leaving many to wonder whether they could – or should – vote in person, whether the absentee ballots they requested would arrive in time or even whether votes they sent in would be counted. The state Supreme Court overruled the governor’s executive order to postpone the election to June, just 14 hours before polling places opened, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal order to extend voting to April 13.

Polling places in many cities were consolidated because election volunteers were in short supply, leading the governor to order the National Guard to work the polls. Fitchburg, however, kept all four of its sites open, with plastic shields separating voters from poll workers.

Unified Newspaper Group reporter Kimberly Wethal contributed to this story.