MONROE — Violations of Wisconsin’s now-blocked “Safer at Home” public health orders were punishable by a fine or up to 30 days in jail, but locally law enforcement handled most violations with warnings.
“It would have to be something pretty drastic for someone to be arrested and jailed for this kind of thing,” said Lafayette County Sheriff Reg Gill.
Gov. Tony Evers issued a series of orders starting in mid-March with the aim of containing the contagious new coronavirus to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has no cure or vaccine. Nationwide as of May 21, more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. have tested positive for the disease and more than 93,000 have died in the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
An order issued March 17 prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people and shut down businesses deemed non-essential, like gyms, movie theaters, hair salons and bars. Restaurants were ordered to close but were allowed to do carry-out and delivery.
Subsequent orders also asked residents to stay home except for essential business like going to an essential job or shopping for groceries.
“The first order came out on St. Patrick’s Day. It was very poorly timed by the state,” said Monroe Chief of Police Fred Kelley. “We found out about 3 o’clock and they had to close at 5.”
Monroe police offers had to “scurry around” and make sure all businesses knew about the mandated closure, Kelley said. Subsequent orders have given two or three days notice, “so that’s helped.”
Three bars in Monroe — Suisse Haus, Bullet’s and Sinner’s Saloon — were still open later that evening when police did another round to check, resulting in letters of warning from District Attorney Craig Nolen.
Dan Schindler, owner of Suisse Haus, said he stayed open a couple more hours because at 5 p.m. he still had 200 pounds of corned beef left to serve and didn’t want to waste it.
“It takes a week and a half to prep for that day. ... We do anywhere from 700 to 1,000 pounds of corned beef (on St. Patrick’s Day),” Schindler said. The beef has to be par-cooked in batches, then chilled and sliced. Leftover corned beef can be turned into corned beef hash, “but I’m not a breakfast place.”
Nolen wrote one other warning letter related to a violation of public health orders, after a Green County deputy discovered numerous people inside Attica Bar in rural Albany on April 10. The group claimed to be having a “staff meeting” but the deputy told them they had to disperse, which they did.
“I’ve never had a staff meeting where we’re having beverages and playing music,” Nolen said. In his letter, he warned the bar owner that “should any future ‘staff meetings’ occur in the future where there are open intoxicants within the premises or not for legitimate business purposes, I will not hesitate to charge for violating the Governor/Secretary-Designee’s orders.”
Green County Sheriff Jeff Skatrud said complaints of violations out in the county were minimal.
“We’ve had way more calls and inquiries on the burn ban,” he said.
In Monroe, Kelley said the police department got calls about the orders about every other day, “mostly in the form of people letting us know they see what they believe to be some violation of the order.”
Most of the time, the complaints turned out to be unfounded, Kelley said. A few weren’t unfounded — like non-essential businesses that hoped to become essential by starting to sell snacks — and resulted in verbal warnings.
One notable exception in Lafayette County is related to a drug investigation sparked by three people who overdosed on heroin inside a South Wayne home April 29. Four people charged as a result of the investigation face one misdemeanor count each of violating a public health order under state statute 252.25. They also face various drug charges.
None has had a preliminary hearing yet. Police reports filed with the criminal complaints do not explicitly reference public health order violations.
Lafayette County District Attorney Jenna Gill did not respond to the Times’ calls and emails inquiring about the case.
The alleged public health order violations occurred April 29, four days after an extension of Gov. Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, which the state Supreme Court later blocked and ruled unenforceable.
Nolen, who is unfamiliar with the details of the Lafayette County cases, said that, in general, it’s up to a judge whether to dismiss charges. The Supreme Court’s ruling to block the recent public health orders would not mean “an automatic dismissal,” he said.
Besides the charges related to the South Wayne drug investigation, Lafayette County had no other enforcement beyond verbal warnings.
“We’ve had very good compliance,” Sheriff Reg Gill said.
The biggest issues were people wanting to gather in groups outside as the weather got warmer. After one bar posted to Facebook inviting customers to come hang out on the deck, Gill said he went out and “had a chat” with the business owner. Another bar had “quite a large group of people sitting there having drinks” while waiting for carryout food.
“They had to be encouraged to dissipate, which they did,” Gill said, noting that he sympathized with the struggle businesses located “out in the middle of nowhere” had to stay afloat during the orders.
“When they opened up the ATV trail, we had a huge influx from out of state, people wanting to stop somewhere for lunch,” he said. One bar near Yellowstone Lake State Park had issues with customers wanting to use the bar bathroom because the state park, while open to visitors, had closed all park bathrooms due to the public health orders.
“Then you have complaints of people using the trees,” Gill said. “It’s kind of tough to open up a state park but not have facilities for those people to use.”
Gill said he also had “numerous calls from different faith congregations who (were) desperately wanting to start gathering again.” At least a few churches planned a “parking lot service” with congregants staying in their cars.