By Shereen Siewert

County leaders on Thursday sent a controversial COVID-19 ordinance that prompted fear and anger among some residents and business owners back to the Health and Human Services Committee for further review.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Counties Association is putting together a task force to write an ordinance that all counties can implement if they choose.

County officials say the ordinance aimed to specifically address the potential for intentional or malicious spread by infected people or groups and to keep the public safe. The proposed 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.

But many residents balked at the use of “quarantine guards” and forced business closures, as written in the current ordinance draft.

Still, health officials say the use of quarantine guards is already allowed under state statute, which reads: The local health officer shall employ as many persons as are necessary to execute his or her orders and properly guard any place if quarantine or other restrictions on communicable disease are violated or intent to violate is manifested. These persons shall be sworn in as quarantine guards, shall have police powers, and may use all necessary means to enforce the state laws for the prevention and control of communicable diseases, or the orders and rules of the department or any local health officer.

The Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce officially opposed the ordinance, citing concerns over “ambiguous and subjective language” that “empowers one individual to unilaterally order a business to close, and is not supported by law.”

Attorneys for the Chamber identified several potential legal pitfalls with the ordinance. Lane Ruhland, an attorney with Madison-based Husch-Blackwell LLP, called the proposed penalties of up to $25,000 per instance, per day “draconian” and took issue with giving the public health officer unilateral determination that businesses, churches or other organizations are “epidemiologically linked.”

Ruhland said that the proposed penalties, combined with overly broad language triggering enforcement authority, raise due process issues that could be significant.

Read Ruhland’s letter to county officials, below.

The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the combined state chamber, manufacturers’ association and safety council, also urged opposition to the ordinance.

WMC Executive Vice President of Government Relations Scott Manley, in a prepared statement, called the proposal “fundamentally flawed” and “unfair,” and urged the Marathon County Board to reject the proposal.

Instead, Manley said, the Board should work with stakeholders on a narrowly-focused ordinance that complies with limitations under state law.

Marathon County Dist. 11 Supervisor Alyson Leahy, who sits on the Executive Committee that met Thursday, said she received a great deal of feedback from residents opposed to the ordinance as written.

“Ultimately I’m glad that the WCA is taking this matter seriously and understands that public input, and various industry input, is warranted,” Leahy said. “I do believe in trusting our public health officials and want to be able to support an ordinance that balances health and safety along with our community’s local economy.”