HUDSON -- St. Croix County Public Health is continuing to promote the health of residents strictly through education after a narrow vote by the County Board brought an end to a new proposed county COVID-19 ordinance.
Instead opposing supervisors asked for positive efforts that would heal divisiveness and regain resident’s trust while addressing the pandemic, though no specific action was introduced at the Tuesday, Nov. 17, meeting.
Public Health is encouraging people to limit family gatherings to those within a household or meeting digitally, it said in a news release.
“Our choices not only affect those closest to us, but can spread throughout our whole community,” the statement said. “This holiday season let’s work together now, so when we can safely be together in-person soon.”
Public Health advises wearing a face-covering in public or when around others, maintaining six feet from those not in your household, avoiding large public or personal gatherings, washing hands frequently and staying home if sick or after a close contact with someone infected with COVID-19.
“The best defense against COVID-19 is you,” the release said.
Ordinance voted down
The ordinance as originally proposed would have given the county’s public health officer specific and limited power to enact a face mask requirement or limited public gathering to 25%. This new ordinance, different from one discussed by a subcommittee last month, was designed to address concerns from residents about the vagueness of the previous ordinance, corporate counsel Scott Cox explained.
Discussion on an ordinance began two months ago, when it was taken up by a newly-formed subcommittee. After a public town hall, the subcommittee chose to postpone recommendation of the first discussed version. The Health and Human Services Board then asked for a new discussion on an ordinance, and sent this new ordinance to the county board.
Citizens had the opportunity to once again share their opinions on the ordinance ahead of the board’s decision, emphasizing the main points that have been repeated during the months of discussion.
Those against the ordinance questioned the effectiveness of masks and social distancing and the impact the disease has had on the county, and called the ordinance unconstitutional, illegal and immoral. Those in support cited rising numbers of cases, hospitalizations and death in the county, and the responsibility of the county to listen to experts and keep the community safe.
The county has received letters from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce questioning the legality of the ordinance, but Cox said he was not concerned about those letters.
An amendment by the county board Tuesday night removed the public gathering limitations, and also all enforcement measures from the proposed ordinance, essentially limiting it to a face mask advisory.
Supervisor Scottie Ard, who put forth the amendment, said the county does not have the ability to enforce the ordinance, and must rely on residents to act in the best interest of everyone.
A few supervisors questioned what the purpose of the newly-amended ordinance would be without an enforcement mechanism.
The amendment passed 13-6.
Supervisor Bob Long spoke against the ordinance, saying the county can do other things besides a meaningless ordinance that won’t do anything.
“We have a meaningless ordinance now because you took out the teeth,” Supervisor Cathy Leaf said in response. She said it’s disappointing that the county can’t get this done for its citizens.
Supervisor Tim Hall, who seconded the amendment, said his intention was not to create a useless ordinance that could then be turned down.
“I feel strongly that this is an opportunity for people to actually put their money where their mouth is when they talk about personal responsibility,” he said.
He proposed another amendment that would put the ordinance in effect without enforcement to start, but if deaths increased by more than 25% over a rolling 14-day period the original $100 fine would then go into effect.
Long said that would pit citizens against each other, and cause more divisiveness in the community, the opposite of what the county needs to do right now. Hall said the divisiveness comes from the people themselves, and the county has a responsibility to make sure it's doing what’s best for the community.
The amendment failed.
Supervisor Paul Berning also spoke against the ordinance, emphasizing the importance of restoring trust between the bureaucracy and residents. If the county approaches this differently, and works to earn trust back, he said it can ask citizens to retreat when the time comes to help healthcare workers.
“People care, people want to do what’s right by others,” he said.
If the county is to rely on people practicing personal responsibility and doing the right thing, Leaf questioned how many in the boardroom were wearing masks.
Ard said that the amended ordinance is a start to regaining trust and bringing the county together to face the same fight for a strong economy and healthy families.
“It is something to build upon with the community, with small business, with manufacturers, with the medical clinics, hospitals,” she said. “We have to start somewhere because we didn't start soon enough in educating the community, in educating residents and speaking plainly about what is happening.”
The ordinance failed, with 9 voting for and 10 against.
Supervisor Bob Feidler said he had a proposal for two other action options, a resolution and an ordinance, that had nothing to do with masks or gatherings. The proposals have been shared with county board supervisors, but were not officially brought forward at Tuesday’s meeting.
The county board will meet again Tuesday, Dec. 1 at its regular meeting.