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Stop hobbling local health officials

You can learn a lot from a pot.

Picture this scene, a pot is boiling away on the stove and the inquisitive toddler, curious about what is for supper, reaches out to grab it. From a parenting perspective there are two ways to handle this. One way is to intercept the child and prevent them from touching the stove and thereby avoid injury. The other way is to let the child burn their hand and learn the hard lesson not to touch hot pots with bare hands in the future.

While there is little doubt the child who burns their hand will learn their lesson, the risk is that they may also do severe, permanent or even deadly harm to themselves and others in the process.

Faced with a crisis, parents and other caregivers have little time to weigh and debate the merits of these two opposing educational philosophies and instead must react quickly.

The vast majority of adults would sooner burn their own hand than allow a child to be injured, no matter how valuable a learning lesson might result from it. Protecting children and others from unnecessary harm is hardwired into our basic humanity, With a surging tide of COVID-19 cases severely overloading the state’s healthcare resources, Wisconsin leaders are like parents standing paralyzed in the kitchen doorway debating educational philosophies as their toddler reaches for the pot of boiling water.

There are those, particularly in public health, who are scrambling madly to head off the near-certain disaster they can see coming. Meanwhile, they are being held back by others, generally lawyers representing those with financial interests in maintaining the status quo, arguing that the toddler must take action on their own to prevent themselves from being injured.

Last week, before heading into a fourday weekend, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an injunction against the Racine Public Health Administrator for ordering all public and private schools in Racine to switch to virtual instruction between Nov. 27 and January 15. Local health officials had issued the order after seeing the surging number of cases and looking at the projections. They did what they felt was necessary on a local level to address the problem. In the case of Racine, the city backed its health officer and put the order into the form of an ordinance.

The conservative advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is crying foul at this process, arguing that the plodding legal system must grind on and make a decision. Meanwhile local offi cials should sit on their hands and do nothing to prevent the impending tidal wave of expected cases over the holiday season.

Fearful of litigation or being left hanging by elected officials and an uncaring, absentee legislature, local public health officials in the state are being hobbled by politics. Rather than clear messages and directives, the public is receiving wishywashy guidance. This is the equivalent of telling the toddler all the reasons they should not touch the boiling pot, but saying it is ultimately their decision to burn themselves or not.

Given the size of Wisconsin and the vast differences between downtown Milwaukee and downtown Gilman, there is legitimate concern about a one-sized fits all blanket approach. Local officials and governments must have the authority and tools to act to do what they feel is necessary to protect their own communities.