By Shereen Siewert
County leaders are considering a COVID-19 ordinance that outlines specific rules for residents and businesses, where violators would face fines of up to $25,000 per day and could be monitored by “quarantine guards” with police power.
The ordinance authorizes the Marathon County Health Officer to take “reasonable and necessary actions to prevent and suppress” COVID-19, regulating individuals, specific businesses and other organizations or localities when and if an outbreak occurs. County-wide enforcement is also authorized under limited circumstances.
If a person, business, organization or locality fails or refuses to implement recommendations of the health officer voluntarily, a written order could be issued that specifies the measures needed to prevent further transmission of COVID-19, the time period involved and the penalty that would result in the event of non-compliance.
The Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce is calling for a public hearing on the ordinance and is urging businesses to contact Marathon County Board members expressing their concern over what they see as potential negative impacts on local businesses.
But the proposal is a long way from approval. Marathon County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs said he expects the Executive Committee to recommend forwarding the ordinance to the Wisconsin Counties Association for review. The WCA would then meet with a group of stakeholders to discuss how to protect citizens in light of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order. Stakeholders would include representatives from the restaurant industry, manufacturing and commerce, along with the Wisconsin Health Officers Association Gibbs said.
After a series of about four meetings, the WCA would then forward recommendations back to the county for consideration.
“There will be time for public input, time for public comment,” Gibbs told Wausau Pilot & Review Tuesday.
Dave Eckmann, president and CEO of the Great Wausau Chamber, said in an email that he and several board members met with county leaders in May to discuss the potential ordinance. Without specific language, the group felt the dialogue “went well,” Eckmann said.
But the Chamber soured on the ordinance after reviewing a first draft and sent an email June 3 to county leaders signaling their disapproval.
“While the draft ordinance initially met the spirit of our prior conversation, we found the draft COVID-19 ordinance, as it is written, to be unacceptable and that we would not support it,” Eckmann wrote.
The Marathon County Health and Human Services Committee passed the draft for consideration, which now moves to the Marathon County Board Executive Committee on June 11.
In his email, Eckmann cited concerns over “ambiguous language that allowed for too much subjectivity on decision making, possible legal issues,” and the need for greater transparency in the ordinance-making process. The Chamber is asking the county for another face-to-face meeting along with a public hearing before the ordinance gets to a final vote.
“We continue to dialogue with county leadership on this topic,” Eckmann wrote.
Gibbs said the ordinance was drafted after conversations with the Chamber, county health officials and Sheriff Scott Parks.
As written, the ordinance directs anyone diagnosed as a case of COVID-19, a probable case or a suspected case to isolate or quarantine to their home or another safe place. People affected must also provide information for contact tracing and allow health department staff to evaluate health status and compliance. People who are identified as a close contact to a diagnosed case are also impacted in the same way.
Businesses in which multiple cases or a cluster of cases are linked would need to create an incident response team, monitor employee health daily, test employees, reduce the number of employees or stagger shifts, and mandate the use of appropriate personal protective equipment and hygiene.
Localities in which defined area experiences a COVID-19 outbreak could be forced to mandate the use of face coverings in public areas and limit gatherings of non-household members, under the terms of the ordinance. From a county standpoint, a widespread COVID-19 outbreak where the health care and public health system is at risk of operating under crisis standards could see the same mandates.
County-wide restrictions would be triggered by insufficient testing or hospital care capacity, or if the Marathon County Health Department is unable to complete contract tracing within 48 hours of report.
Businesses or municipalities that don’t comply could be cited and their licenses or permits issued by the Health Department could be suspended.
Anyone violating a provision of the ordinance would face fines ranging from $100 to $25,000 per violation, per day. Legal action would be initiated as requested by the Marathon County Health Officer and prosecuted by the Corporation Counsel for Marathon County.
The Executive Committee meets Thursday to discuss next steps.
See the full ordinance draft, below.Marathon-County-Covid-Ordinance