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Judge dismisses COVID-19 order lawsuit
stay home covid

MADISON (AP) — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by two dozen Wisconsin residents, including two Green County residents, challenging a variety of local stay-at-home orders enacted to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

U.S. District Judge William Griesbach on July 20 dismissed the challenge, filed in May, saying those bringing it did not properly join all of the defendants into one lawsuit. That mistake requires that the lawsuit be dismissed, Griesbach said in his order. Those bringing it can file it again if they correct the errors, the judge said.

Joseph Voiland, the attorney for those who brought the lawsuit, said he was reviewing whether to file an amended lawsuit or appeal.

The lawsuit was brought against Gov. Tony Evers, Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Andrea Palm and county and city officials from 14 independent government entities, including Green County Public Health Director RoAnn Warden. 

It alleged that the state and local officials violated the constitutional rights of Wisconsin citizens by imposing mandatory public health orders or taking other steps in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit sought to void all of the local orders that were enacted after the Wisconsin Supreme Court in May tossed out Evers’ statewide “Safer at Home” order.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has said the local orders, many of which have already been rescinded, were legal. He praised the ruling.

“I’m happy that this challenge to critical rules to protect public health was dismissed,” Kaul said in a statement. “To protect public health, our economy and our educational system, we must work together to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”

Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Eric Skelton of Monroe and Jenny Turkelson of Brodhead. They claim Palm’s extension of the governor’s initial month-long “Safer at Home” order from March — and subsequent local orders — stripped them of their First Amendment rights to freely practice their religion.

Skelton “takes part in home worship gatherings with others who are not members of his household,” the lawsuit notes. Skelton and his wife founded God’s Green Acres, a Christian ministry, in 2007.

The defendants said that the lawsuit failed to allege any coordinated action between all the local officials involved.

Those bringing the lawsuit countered that the officials acted together to violate their federal constitutional rights.

The judge disagreed.

“Each of the government entities are independent of each other, and the fact that various governmental officials consulted with each other before they issued local orders in response to the pandemic does not transform their independent actions into a single transaction or occurrence,” Griesbach wrote.

Also, each of those who brought the lawsuit is subject to different orders implemented in different parts of the state, the judge said. The claims raised are “largely separate and distinct” and have been improperly joined together into one lawsuit, he said.

Dismissal of the lawsuit comes as communities struggle to reduce spread of the virus as the numbers are spiking in Wisconsin. On July 21, the state Department of Health Services reported a new record high in daily confirmed cases at 1,117. That breaks the previous record of 978 set on July 18.

There are now more than 44,000 positive cases statewide and 865 deaths. The percentage of tests that came back positive on May 21 was 7.7%, down from around 10% each of the past two days.

The true number of cases is likely far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

Green County is doing better than the state as a whole. As of July 22, Green County’s COVID-19 activity level is back down to “medium,” as measured by infection rate and trajectory of growth.

The activity level in surrounding counties is still rated at “high,” including in Lafayette County, which reported eight new cases in one day July 22, its biggest single-day increase.

Green County Public Health reports a positive rate over the past 14 days of just under 2% and no hospitalizations in over a week.

— Kat Cisar contributed