Officials in the state’s most-infected city double down on policy a judge has halted.
The Racine Common Council voted 8-5 to pass new coronavirus restrictions Monday night, three days after a judge temporarily suspended a nearly identical order.
After about an hour-and-a-half of debate, aldermen decided to essentially reinstate the previous rules meant to guard against the coronavirus pandemic. A judge on Friday temporarily halted the previous order after a gym owner sued the city, claiming the rules should be dropped because he had lost business.
Racine has the highest per-capita infection rate in the state, but the rate of new cases has been slowing down. About 1 in 100 residents in the county, have contracted coronavirus, and 1 in 50 in the city have. The county, population roughly 200,000, had about 2,100 cases as of Monday, and the city, population 75,000, represented more than 1,400 of those cases.
“We don’t want to go backwards,” said Dottie-Kay Bowersox, Racine’s health officer.
Common Council President John Tate, II, said Racine itself should have never had to deal with such an order. He blamed the botched federal pandemic response and “disconnected” state-level response that has seen Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm wrestle with absent Republican leadership in the Legislature.
“We weren’t supposed to be here,” Tate said. “…This shouldn’t be in the Common Council’s hands. These are not supposed to be political decisions.”
Aldermen debated about whether the replacement order was necessary, given that a final ruling in the case against the previous order is expected within about a week. All acknowledged the impact the shutdown is having on local Racine businesses, especially given the fact that locals are traveling freely to Racine’s suburbs, which no longer have any restrictions in place.
“There is no version of this where everyone is OK,” said Alderman Jason Meekma, but he said the city had to get its response right so residents and businesses alike would be “as OK as possible.”
“It’s not over just because we’re ‘over it,’” Meekma added.
The replacement order gives Bowersox the power to make adjustments to rules as necessary in order to control any possible coronavirus outbreaks.
Alderman Henry Perez said he felt giving Bowersox that level unilateral power was “an overreach constitutionally.”
“Coming from a communist country, I’m kind of troubled by what this says,” said Perez, a Cuban immigrant.
That argument has no real standing. The Supreme Court ruled that the state DHS could not impose restrictions on the whole state, but said nothing of local health departments.
State statutes give local health officers broad powers in health emergencies, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception. That has still not stopped legal challenges against Racine’s order and others remaining in the state, and a ruling against Racine’s order in the current case could create a new precedent that would surely be appealed.
“I’d much rather be cautious and do things more than were necessary than not do enough and have to deal with the reality of that,” Tate said.