MONROE — At the June 10 meeting of the Green County Health Committee, supervisors decided to wait on guidance from a newly formed statewide “workgroup” for how to draft a local public health ordinance regarding community-wide response to communicable disease outbreaks.
The goal of the workgroup, which was formed by the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) and had its first meeting June 16, is to create a model ordinance for local health departments that could be adopted by municipalities to mitigate the spread of communicable diseases such as COVID-19 in the community.
Members of the group come from across the state and include attorneys, a sheriff, a county administrator, four county health officials and representatives from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce.
When the state Supreme Court struck down the extension of Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order in May — an order intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and protect vulnerable populations — it left counties and municipalities scrambling to figure out what local laws, if any, were available to draft local replacement orders.
“The pandemic has revealed the gray lines and limits of government authority to ensure public safety,” according to WCA.
Across the state, counties made different decisions. Lafayette County officials decided to forgo a countywide order. Other counties, including Green and Rock, quickly implemented similar local orders to replace the state order.
But Green County’s order was rescinded several days later after local officials decided it could not be enforced countywide due to variations in municipal zoning codes. Rock County also ended its order.
Another problem is that many current county public health ordinances are “written very broadly” and grant broad authority without a lot of specifics, said Green County Public Health Director RoAnn Warden.
Counties can still rely on state laws to issue individual public health orders. Warden had to issue one such order recently when a Monroe resident who had tested positive for COVID-19 was seen “out and about” and not taking the order seriously, she said. On June 4, the Monroe Police Department served an isolation order on the resident.
But when it comes to an ordinance for a community-wide order — with rules that affect businesses, hospitals, community groups, parks, public schools, churches and more — implementation is not so straight-forward.
“What we experienced with this particular pandemic and the statewide ‘Safer at Home’ (order) is people need more specifics and detail in an order,” Warden said. She’s hopeful that the statewide WCA workgroup will “develop guidance for both cities and counties in drafting a local ordinance.”
The Green County Health Committee had planned at its June 10 meeting to review and consider local ordinance options for addressing communicable diseases control and the related authority and duties of the local health officer, but decided to put off the discussion and wait for guidance from the WCA workgroup.
“I think it’s prudent to put it on hold,” said Beth Luchsinger, county supervisor from New Glarus, adding that she was disappointed the county had to rescind its public health order.
“I had many people in my area who were extremely proud that we had done that and taken a stand,” she said.
Several supervisors on the committee also talked about “irate” and “nasty” calls they got from constituents who were unhappy with the “Safer at Home” order and its short-lived countywide replacement.
“Thursday afternoon (of that week) I already had four phone calls wondering how on earth we could do that ... There were a lot of people out there that couldn’t figure out how we could do that,” said Harvey Kubly.
Warden said she was unaware of a timeline for information from the WCA workgroup.