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Communicable disease ordinance shot down in county

By Ginna Young “It puts too much power into the hands of one person, now, and into the future.” That was a sentiment widely heard at a Chippewa County Health and Human Services Board meeting Sept. 17, as the public mainly spoke against an ordinance that was written with the purpose to regulate public gatherings that are construed as a health hazard. The board looked at the ordinance, as cases of COVID-19 grow across the state. More than 40 individuals spoke in person before the board or by phone, with the overwhelming majority voicing their displeasure and opposition to the ordinance. Most stated that the ordinance infringed upon their rights as a U.S. citizen. Some, including Wade Asher, general manager of the Chippewa Valley Music Festivals and resident of the Town of Arthur, questioned why, with no deaths and few hospitalizations from COVID-19 in the county, did the board decide to propose the ordinance, six months into the pandemic? Asher says he has worked with the Chippewa County Health Department for many years, with successful outcomes in a partnership that benefits all. “This new proposed ordinance doesn’t do that,” said Asher. According to the proposed ordinance, the county’s health officer would “do what is reasonable and necessary, for the prevention and suppression of disease,” and may forbid public gatherings when deemed necessary, to control outbreaks. “What is considered reasonable?” asked Sarah Polzin, Town of Anson resident and small business owner. “It’s not specified, it’s not clear, is not measurable and it is not well-defined.” Carli Ferron, Holcombe resident and small business owner, also weighed in, stating that the pandemic has given an opportunity to a fast-track for tyrannical control. Ferron said since the lockdown that took place for more than a month in early spring, she has witnessed much financial loss and ruined lives, as well as a rise in suicide and declining mental health. “I don’t need the statistics to tell me that,” said Ferron. “I just have to look at my community, talk to people and read the news.” Ferron also mentioned that the ordinance does not name COVID-19, which means that the health officer could ban any gatherings, at any time. “To me, this is red flag No. 1,” she said, “when you’re opening it up to any virus, bacteria or anything in between, that can be passed from person to person.” Although few in number, some people were all for the ordinance, including former health officer, Jean Durch, who retired in 2014. She cited consistency as a reason for the ordinance and the potential for enforcement. “Communicable diseases have always been with us and have always been roles for your health department to work on it,” said Durch. “It’s not an intention to infringe on your life – in fact, living your life is exactly what the department wants to promote.” Holcombe resident and professor of public health nursing Dr. Pam Guthman, reminds people that the health department is responsible for the safety of county residents. Guthman said a large percent of the population of Chippewa County, is an elderly one and therefore, susceptible to viruses. “When you look at the disease rate and the mortality rate,” she said, “the evidence is very clear that you have to really consider those who have increased likelihood of severe illness…that is one of the challenges we have as public health.” Chippewa County public health director Angela Weideman said what is most concerning, is that she recommends a large-scale event not be held, but then organizers go ahead with the event, despite her recommendations. There are currently no laws or ordinances on the books for Chippewa County, forbidding mass gatherings, because of a health concern. Many were concerned that through the ordinance, the health officer would be able to remove people from homes and take children from parents. Legal counsel for the board said there was a lot if misinformation circulating and that the ordinance did not give the health officer any additional authority. But, if the ordinance passed, it stated that no person may interfere with the investigation under that section. Any person who violated the article or obstructs the health officer, could be issued a non-criminal citation and fine ($100-$500) for each violation. Some health board members felt that if they passed the ordinance, that the faith and trust of their constituents would be lost. It might also open a door for multiple lawsuits, but others felt that the ordinance was an inevitable outcome, with the upscale of the pandemic. “You don’t get your time back and you don’t get your focus back,” said one board member, asking that his fellow members take into consideration the multitude of residents who pled with the board not to pass the ordinance. “We would be sacrificing way more than we would ever be getting with this tool of enforcement.” The health office says once someone tests positive, that they would prefer someone enter a voluntary quarantine, but if a person disregards that, with the ordinance, they could be confined to their home with an armed guard out the door. A fine would also be instituted. “You’re describing a situation, where there’s an armed guard in front of their door and you want to add a fine to that?” asked one board member. “Am I hearing this right?” The health officers affirmed that was correct. “Wow,” said the member who had spoken. It was agreed if the ordinance was passed, the orders must be enforced. The question was called on whether or not to go through with the ordinance. On a roll call vote, the motion was accepted, 5-3, to not move forward to the Chippewa County Board for consideration. While the failed ordinance does not prevent a future proposed ordinance from being presented, members agreed that it is likely they will not bring the matter up again.