Marathon Co. Health Dept, hears compliance concerns, criticism
By Kevin O’Brien
On the evening of Aug. 13, a person working somewhere in Marathon County used a newly available complaint form on the health department’s website to raise concerns about their co-workers not wearing face masks.
“I can’t risk losing my job, but I am forced to work in an environment where no one takes this seriously” the person wrote. “Only a small handful wear masks, while others will cough directly on you and laugh about it. Disgusting.”
The complainant said the company’s corporate office put out directions to wear masks — in compliance with a public health order issued by Gov Tony Evers to slow the spread of COVID-19 — but “no one bothers” to enforce it.
The same day someone else used the complaint form to register an entirely different type of grievance.
“I saw a bunch of idiotic civil servants wasting tax dollars to get Karens to rat out fellow citizens for something that isn’t illegal,” the person wrote, using the slang term “Karens” to refer to women prone to making frivolous complaints.
These two complaints represent com See COMPLAINTS/ Page 9 mon responses to a complaint form introduced Aug. 13 on the health department’s website, following the start of the statewide face covering mandate Aug. 1.
In the first two weeks after the complaint form was posted online, the health department received roughly 300 complaints of people not wearing masks and around 100 complaints about the complaint system itself.
The Tribune-Phonograph received a total of 114 pages of complaints from the health department in response to an open records request submitted Aug. 28. Nearly all of the complaints were partially redacted in order to conceal the identity of the person filing the complainant and the subject of the complaint, whether that was a business or individuals.
Marathon County’s corporation counsel, Scott Corbett, said this was done to protect the reputational and privacy interests of businesses and individuals who were the subject of complaints that have not been verified. The complainants’ names were also kept secret to avoid a “chilling effect” because of possible harassment.
Most of the complaints related to people not wearing masks were directed at businesses, especially those that serve the public, such as gas stations, restaurants and stores. Based on descriptions included in the complaints, at least some of the businesses were medical clinics.
One complaint mentioned “five patients waiting for appointments,” and two others who “entered with masks and immediately dropped them to their necks.”
“I felt very unsafe and nearly left. I complained to the nurse who saw me into the exam room...” the complaint states.
None of the complaints have resulted in referrals to the Marathon County District Attorney’s office, according to officials at the health department.
Within hours of the complaint form being posted Aug. 13, dozens of messages poured in, ranging from specific claims about workers and patrons not wearing masks to more generalized anger about the county’s decision to provide a “snitch form” that encouraged “tattling.”
The complaints provided in response to the records request spanned a two-week period between Thursday, Aug. 13, and Thursday, Aug. 27. The number of complaints per day has tapered off significantly since then.
In the first 24 hours after the form was made available, 115 complaints were submitted, but as of Tuesday, that number just hit 658 after more than five weeks.
The governor’s order, which took effect just after midnight on Aug. 1, was set to expire next Monday, Sept. 28, but Evers announced Tuesday that he was extending it another 60 days, given the “nearexponential growth” of the disease in recent days.
“We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campus,” Gov. Evers wrote. “We need folks to start taking this seriously, and young people especially—please stay home as much as you are able, skip heading to the bars, and wear a mask whenever you go out. We need your help to stop the spread of this virus, and we all have to do this together.”
So, how successful was it?
Two representatives of the Marathon County Health Department were asked last Friday how successful they thought the complaint form was in compelling more people to wear face coverings. Judy Burrows, public information officer for the health department, said the complaint form wasn’t meant to punish people for not wearing masks, but to allow for open communication. “The intent of the complaint form was to give people an outlet to share what they were seeing and experiencing and feeling,” she said. “I don’t know that the complaint form, in and of itself, could really increase compliance.”
Dale Grosskurth, environmental health and safety director for the department, said based on his own personal observations and anecdotal evidence, the governor’s mandate did compel more people to wear masks in public — at least at first.
Grosskurth said he’s been contacting businesses that have been the subject of numerous complaints just to see what their policies are and to offer guidance on complying with the mandate.
“Businesses were not expected to enforce (the mandate), so we were just trying to see how they were trying to manage it themselves,” he said.
Both Burrows and Grosskurth pointed out that the governor’s mandate includes a lot of exemptions, including one for those with medical issues that prevent them from wearing a mask. Burrows said many people filing complaints may not have realized that a person without a mask qualified for a medical exemption.
With case numbers continuing to rise in Marathon County and across Wisconsin, Burrows said she hopes people continue to take precautions seriously.
“If mask-wearing is going down and cases are going up, there may be a conclusion that can be drawn from that,” she said.
Because there is currently no cure or vaccine for COVID-19, Burrows said public health officials have to employ a variety of measures to control the spread.
“All we have is a couple of prevention strategies, and each one of them has some effectiveness, and together they have more effectiveness, but it’s still not full-proof,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”
Health officials and other county government employees were often the target of some of the more snarky complaints, which referred to officials as “Nazis,” “Communists” and “tyrants.”
Burrows said that comes with the territory.
“Unfortunately, we’re sometimes the bearer of some bad new for people, and that doesn’t make us the most popular all the time,” she said. “But, we’re doing the best we can, and our goal is to keep our community healthy and safe.”