In the wake of what is described as “an exponential increase” in COVID-19 cases, Barron County authorities have been asked to consider enacting an emergency ordinance that would require people to wear protective face coverings, and would limit the number of individuals allowed in bars, restaurants and other small businesses.
The proposal came up during a Monday, July 27, 2020, meeting of the County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Services Committee.
If the ordinance is passed, it would need to be reviewed at the next meeting of the County Board Executive Committee, now scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5.
At the meeting, supervisors and other community members learned that the so-called “local health ordinance,” abbreviated as LHO, is within the County Board’s authority to enact.
“I don’t know what to tell you, except that if you do nothing, (the virus) spreads,” Laura Sauve, county health officer, told the committee.
Since the Wisconsin Legislature successfully overruled a closure of “non-essential businesses” in the state in late May 2020, COVID-19 has been on a steady increase both in Wisconsin and Barron County, committee members were told.
Outside of larger commercial businesses (such as Walmart or Menards), voluntary measures don’t seem to be working, Sauve said.
“Big entities are following a strategy, but not bars, local small establishments, etc.,” she said.
Committee members were told that in some larger bars, dozens of people are “standing shoulder to shoulder.”
“The (Rice Lake stock car) race track had 3,400 attendance last week,” Sauve added. “There’s going to be a tractor pull at the (county) fairgrounds. The (Chetek) Liberty Fest was held. I don’t know how many graduation parties there have been.”
She said the LHO “would require masks in all public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible,” and would set limits on restaurant and bar occupancy.
Jeff French, county administrator, cautioned the committee that the ordinance process needs to be followed to ensure fairness and head off possible legal issues.
“There are ups and downs to this,” he said. “You must train supervisors to know that (the ordinance) is a yes or no vote, and not a political debate.”
Properly written and enacted, the ordinance would allow the county to impose restrictions on businesses that either ignore or refuse to comply with the Department of Health and Human Services’ requests to follow requirements such as masks, social distancing and limited occupancy.
If proper steps are followed, and the entire County Board approves the LHO, “it creates legal immunity from lawsuit,” French said. “The liability drops substantially, because you run this proposal through the main oversight body (the County Board).”
“Let’s look at the numbers,” Committee chair Karolyn Bartlett, supervisor for Dist. 5, Dallas, said. “Of our total (COVID-19) cases for the county, where do they come from?”
Sauve said many cases involve out-of-county travel, but many also come from social gatherings.
“Some have even come from small social gatherings,” noted Stacey Frolik, Health and Human Services director.
Sauve was asked if the LHO was a measure she wanted to see enacted.
“Professionally, yes,” she replied. “Personally, I would not want it.”
The reason: there have been county health officers elsewhere who have received death threats or need police escorts, Sauve added.