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Wisconsin National Guard Cpls. Emily Rymkus gathers a sample from Dorothy Schroeder for testing of COVID-19 at a drive-up site near Baraboo in April as part of an effort to stem a local outbreak. (Photo © Andy Manis)

County boards are caving to pushback against efforts to halt the spread of coronavirus

In April, the Sauk County health officer demonstrated the power of unencumbered quick action when he shut down a Wisconsin Dells area worker dormitory, containing a local outbreak to about 15 people rather than 150 residents or many more in the greater community. 

But as other counties seek to bolster the powers of their local health officials, they are seeing pushback by business owners, industry groups and some residents against allowing those officials to close or curtail business activity when a coronavirus outbreak occurs. The struggles come after the Wisconsin Supreme Court stripped the state Department of Health Services’ ability to enact a statewide response to the pandemic, leaving a patchwork of local rules and restrictions as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread.

The Price County Board recently shot down, on a 7-6 vote, an ordinance that would give power to the head of the health department to decide if a business should be closed due to public health concerns, according to a report from WJFW-TV.

“For your average small business owner, living their dream in this little town, this is a death note,” former business owner Linda Dayton said. “I am sick of the government trying to decide who is essential and who is not.”

Similarly, the Winnebago County Board refused to take up a proposed ordinance change that would let the health officer “take all measures necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases,” according to a story in the Oshkosh Northwestern.

Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Casper said the proposal would give the health officer too much power.

Winnebago County has nearly 500 COVID-19 cases and nearly a dozen deaths, and recently experienced a spike of cases among young adults after pandemic safeguards were thrown out by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

In Marathon County, the County Coard’s Executive Committee unanimously dropped a similar proposal, according to a story from WAOW-TV, following pushback from the Greater Wausau Area Chamber of Commerce and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s biggest business lobby.

Rather than enforcing ordinances and increasing powers for health officers even as the outbreak continues to spread across the state, local governments seem to be waiting on industry-written guidelines for potential future ordinances. In Marathon County, the board chair indicated the Wisconsin Counties Association is working with the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and other parties to write guidelines for COVID-19 ordinances.

As of Thursday, the state Department of Health Services has 613 active COVID-19 facilities investigations including 291 at workplaces that are not health care-related. DHS reported another 422 new cases Thursday for a total of 23,876 since the outbreak began. There were seven more lives lost, bringing the state’s coronavirus death toll to 719.