Health board calls court's Safer at Home ruling 'scary'

Officials say Supreme Court decision leaves county with little ability to control Covid-19
Ozaukee Press staff

Last week’s state Supreme Court decision that rolled back Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order was “disappointing,” “scary” and left local health officials with little to no power to prevent businesses from reopening or individuals from circulating as they please, members of the Washington Ozaukee County Public Health Board said last week.  

“There is nothing we can do except to educate people to maintain social distancing” and practice other safe habits, Public Health Director Kirsten Johnson told the board, which met remotely on Friday.

The Supreme Court decision on Wednesday, May 13, immediately lifted all restrictions on businesses, churches and other gatherings imposed by Evers’ order, which he had sought to extend through May 26.

The order keeps in place the closure of schools until fall.

Soon after the court’s ruling, some counties and municipalities issued orders that stay-at-home restrictions would stay in place.

The Tavern League of Wisconsin told its members they could reopen immediately and local restaurants and bars soon opened.

“(The court’s ruling) was very disheartening,” she said. “I had hoped control would be given to local health departments. But all that control has been taken away from us.”

Johnson said the only power left to the board and the health department was that a business could be forced to shut down if an  outbreak of the disease could be traced to the business.

“It’s on the business owners to be responsible,” she said. “There will be repercussions.”

Johnson said she expects to see a rise in the number of cases, beginning five days after the court’s ruling, the disease’s incubation period. 

“I’m afraid we will be quickly overwhelmed” with new cases, she said.

On Saturday, 502 cases were reported statewide, the highest number in weeks.

On Tuesday, however, the fifth day since the decision, the number of new cases statewide totaled 144, the lowest one-day total since April 21 when there were 121 new cases in Wisconsin. On Wednesday, 198 new cases were reported, the lowest since May 12.

Board Chairman Don Kriefall said he hoped county residents follow health department recommendations.

“Most people are intelligent enough to know that a risk exists. We need to emphasize how important these recommendations are,” he said.

Johnson said she will continue to hold discussions on the situation with business groups and others on the health threat.

Ozaukee County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said he is waiting to hear from the Wisconsin Counties Association for legal guidance on crafting potential ordinances that could be enforced.

“Hopefully that will happen soon,” Dzwinel said. “I was hoping the court would lend some clarity to the situation. Frankly, I think they did the opposite.”

Passing an ordinance would require a vote by the Ozaukee County Board.

On Thursday, a day after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Johnson issued a statement advising businesses they can reopen without fear of being cited.

“If you choose to reopen your business, you are not in violation of Safer at Home or orders issued by the health department,” she said.

Ozaukee County Sheriff Jim Johnson issued a statement prior to the Supreme Court ruling that the Public Health Department by statute was the lead enforcement agency of the Safer at Home order, not his department.

“If Washington Ozaukee Public Health requests our assistance, we will respond to assist in their investigation of the violations,” he said.

On Monday, Kirsten Johnson updated two existing orders to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.

“The Supreme Court was clear: Broad general orders are not legal. Instead, our approach is to protect our vulnerable populations through precise direction while offering guidelines for businesses to reopen safely,” Johnson said in her statement.

The orders clarify that nursing homes, assisted living facilities and memory care facilities must “lock down” to limit all in-person non-essential contact from outside.

The measures are meant to protect the senior population, which has proven to be the most vulnerable to the disease, Johnson pointed out. 

Residents aren’t restricted to their rooms but must wear face masks if they leave their rooms, she said.

Johnson also ordered agencies or businesses that provide staff at long-term care facilities to disclose whether staff have been exposed to Covid-19 and if they are working in more than one facility.

In addition, businesses that transport residents of long-term care facilities must wear personal protective equipment while transporting residents and all vehicles involved in the transport of residents are to be cleaned each day.

Johnson also told board members that her department had spent about $750,000 combatting the virus outbreak, due mainly to increased staff time, providing personal protective equipment and other expenses.

She said she expects those funds to be reimbursed through emergency measures from the state.

“It’s not clear from the state how much we’re going to get and when were going to get it,” she told board members.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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