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Winnebago Co. Board to consider enforcement of local health orders

Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 6:14 PM CDT
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OSHKOSH, Wis. (WBAY) - Wisconsin gives health officials the power to issue orders to address the spread of communicable diseases. But at a local level, many counties in the state don’t have the ability to enforce those orders.

“It turns out that most of Wisconsin counties have a glitch in their county code so there isn’t adequate language there to enforce the orders of a health officer,” said Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris.

So currently, if Gov. Tony Evers' mask mandate expired, Winnebago County health officials wouldn’t be able to enforce a mask order of their own even though the state gives give county health officers the ability to issue orders.

Harris says earlier in the summer the board considered amending the ordinance to ensure general health orders could be enforced. After receiving a lot of concern from community members who believed it would give the health officer too much power, they put a pause on the idea.

“The county is not giving any increased powers to the health department. We’re simply correcting a glitch in our code that will allow for enforcement of powers.”

The county board of health passed a similar proposal Thursday night for the county board to consider but have since added an extra step: Any general orders made by the health officer would first have to be passed by a majority vote in the county board to become enforceable.

The penalty for not following a health order could include a fine between $100 and $500 for each violation. The health department could also suspend permits it issued.

“Effectively, we don’t have any current orders out there being enforced,” said Harris. “It’s going to be pretty limited with that check in there from the county board.”

“The new ordinance is a little better,” said Oshkosh Chamber President and CEO John Casper.

Though Casper concedes it’s a step in the right direction, he’s still concerned.

“What is the range of those orders? What could those be? Could it be eliminating private parties? Could it mean eliminating the number of people at gatherings? Could it mean closing churches? Could it mean limiting bars and restaurants, closing bars and restaurants, closing sections of the community, closing the entire community and having its own safer at home order?” said Casper.

Casper would like to see more guidance created to limit how far the orders could go.

“The county board is looking at enacting this without any real clear definition to what the extent of those orders could be,” said Casper. “I think the public wants to know that. I think the public should know that.”

“The powers the state gave the health officers are so broad that critics of this policy conjure up the most extreme thing that could be done within his power and then say ‘Well, what if a majority of the board supports that?’ which wouldn’t happen in reality,” Harris responded.

Though Casper argues, with winter approaching and outdoor dining options and activities becoming limited, even simple restrictions could impact businesses like restaurants and bars.

Winnebago County Health Director and Officer Doug Gieryn says things can’t keep going as they are and argues it’s getting harder and harder to keep businesses open because of the number of cases in the area.

“We’re one of the worst-situated communities in the entire nation in terms of the rates of COVID cases right now, and we’ve been at that level for weeks,” said Gieryn. “The consequences of not having any regulation in place are really showing. Our hospitals are at or over capacity. We’re having to open up an alternative care site in Milwaukee to divert patients. Schools are largely closed or considering closing, would really like to open those back up. And our businesses are closing for lack of employees. We have thousands and thousands of infected individuals within the community and its impacting our life in every way.”

He says that really the update to the ordinance would simply allow him to do the job he’s always had to protect the community’s public health.

“Without the ability to put into place some rules everyone can follow, it’s going to be difficult to do that. We’ve been trying that and voluntary compliance just hasn’t been working,” said Gieryn. “Like smoking or seatbelts, until you have law in place and an ability to enforce that you just don’t have the participation in that activity that makes a really meaningful difference.”

Harris can’t imagine any extreme or severe order passing in light of the need for a majority board vote, but he believes health officers should be able to take some action in times like these.

“If the state is charging county health officers as the first line of defense and quite frankly the last one as well, then they really have to have some ability to enforce reasonable orders,” said Harris. “I think this is a good compromise to achieve that.”

The board will consider amending the ordinance Tuesday at 6 p.m. To find the Zoom link for that public meeting click here.

To look at what the Winnebago County Health Department is currently recommending for residents and businesses, click here.

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