Eau Claire City Council member Kate Beaton, left, listens to State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski during a recent affordable housing discussion in Eau Claire. Beaton is among Wisconsin elected officials who have received threatening messages as they have considered COVID-19 regulations intended to slow the spread of the virus. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Eau Claire City Council member Kate Beaton, left, listens to State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski during a recent affordable housing discussion in Eau Claire. Beaton is among Wisconsin elected officials who have received threatening messages as they have considered COVID-19 regulations intended to slow the spread of the virus. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

The votes are pitting those who say the measures are an infringement on their constitutional rights that will unduly harm businesses versus those who rely on science.  

As she pondered her decision about a controversial public health ordinance a month ago, Eau Claire City Council member, Kate Beaton, weighed doing so against the harsh, threatening tone of the many messages she had received prior to the vote.

Leading up to the Oct. 13 vote, Beaton, a council member for the past four years, said she had never before received so many texts, emails, and phone calls about one issue. At times she received three or four messages per minute, she said, regarding a proposed city ordinance that would have provided legal protections for enforcement of existing COVID-19 regulations. 

These weren’t just any messages. Many of them were strongly worded, full of high emotion on a topic that has become increasingly political and divisive, in some cases pitting neighbor against neighbor. Beaton had dealt with plenty of important issues, some controversial, during her tenure on the council. But none had packed the impassioned rhetoric this topic did.  

As her time to vote neared, Beaton said she felt increasingly nervous, thoughts of those angry comments flashing through her mind. She voted against a proposal to table the measure until June.

“This was the first time I’ve ever been worried for my safety as a public official,” Beaton said Monday, one month after she was the lone vote against the proposed ordinance. “It was even something I considered when thinking about voting ‘yes’ on the ordinance, especially when it was looking like I’d be the only ‘yes’ vote.” 

Beaton isn’t alone among Wisconsin elected officials feeling public animus regarding COVID-19 regulations. Others across the state report facing unprecedented negative comments, and sometimes actual threats, whenever efforts to contain the virus are discussed. 

On one side are people opposed to such actions, saying they are an infringement on their constitutional rights that will unduly harm businesses. On the other are residents who say more must be done to enact and enforce such rules in the face of fast-growing coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state, numbers made far worse by the refusal of some to protect against the spread of the contagious virus. 

The rapid growth of virus cases in Wisconsin has prompted communities across the state to consider local enforcement of actions to slow virus spread given that a statewide order mandating the wearing of masks in public is set to expire Saturday. Protests against such actions come even as the number of COVID-19 cases skyrockets along with related hospitalizations and deaths.

On Monday, the state Department of Health Services reported 4,389 new cases of the virus, an additional 12 deaths, and 118 new hospitalizations. Those numbers are lower than recent days, but Monday figures are typically relatively low because of less testing. 

Despite the reduced case and deaths figures, the positivity rate was 36%, about the same as the average for the past seven days and much higher than the 5% figure deemed acceptable to reopen activities to the public. Hospitals across the state report being at or near capacity, with a record 2,274 hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday and 456 requiring intensive care.  

Despite those alarming numbers, most efforts to enact added COVID-19 controls have failed, in part because of fierce opposition to them, local government officials said. 

In Chippewa County, about 150 people gathered outside the county courthouse on Sept. 17 to protest a proposed ordinance that would have allowed for greater enforcement of COVID-19-related health orders. Government leaders said they received many strongly worded, and in some cases, threatening messages against their voting in favor of the proposal.

Likewise, Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg said protesters gathered at City Hall last week prior to the City Council adopting a city recommendation to wear masks in public after the statewide mask mandate ends. The council’s action lacks the enforcement power that a stronger ordinance the council refused to approve possessed.  

In the days before the council’s vote, Rosenberg said she received a flood of angry, sometimes threatening messages in her email account and on her cellphone. Some referred to Rosenberg as a tyrant. Some said the city had no business regulating their activities. Some used profanities. Some expressed worse. 

An acquaintance told Rosenberg she was a sheep, a reference to her following state government recommendations, to take such precautions as wearing a mask in public to prevent spreading COVID-19. Others made veiled threats if they didn’t get their way. 

“I know criticism is part of the job when you’re in government,” Rosenberg said Monday. “There are always people who will always be negative about whatever it is you’re working on. But this is at a different level than normal. Some of it is really hateful.” 

Many businesses and others objected to the enforcement of wearing masks in public, Rosenberg said, and let their feelings be known in coarse terms. Since the council’s vote, proponents of masks have responded angrily, she said, sending many angry emails and texts and making phone calls expressing their displeasure.  

“A lot of people don’t want to even talk about this because they don’t want to be beaten up on social media,” Rosenberg said of ongoing negativity surrounding COVID-19 regulations. “They are reluctant to talk about it because they are afraid. It’s so disappointing.”

Similar proposed ordinances in other Wisconsin communities have prompted pushback as well. For example, in August more than 100 people gathered outside the Sheboygan County courthouse to protest an effort  that would have given the health officer the ability to enforce existing COVID-19 rules. 

St. Croix County Board members said they are receiving lots of flack from citizens opposed to coronavirus control measures. On Tuesday, county officials will consider adopting a communicable disease ordinance that would give the county health officer enforcement authority during the ongoing pandemic. 

As in other locations where such measures have been proposed, people have rallied against the measure. 

“We don’t think the government should be able to tell us where we can and can’t go, what we can and can’t do,” St. Croix County resident Larry Schultz said. “Some of us feel like there is an attempt with this to take away our rights.”

Such actions aren’t an attempt to infringe on anyone’s rights, Rosenberg said, but are intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to save lives. Nearly 100 people have died from the virus in Marathon County where she lives, and hospitals are nearly full and are overwhelmed with patients infected with the virus. 

“This isn’t a political issue. It’s about health, about saving people’s lives,” Rosenberg said. “It’s so frustrating to see it play out this way. So sad.”