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Protect the public health

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors must stand its ground and not cave in to an intimidation campaign from business groups and right-wing political organizations to shelve its proposed COVID-19 ordinance. This past week, business leaders and political activists attacked the ordinance. Going further, the Wausau Chamber of Commerce threatened to go to court to block it.

“The Chamber has no interest in a protracted and costly legal dispute,” wrote the organization’s attorney Lane Ruhland in a letter to county board chairman Kurt Gibbs. “However, if this proposed ordinance is enacted, the Chamber and several of its members intend to avail themselves of all remedies available at law.”

This is completely outrageous. The Wausau Chamber of Commerce should applaud county efforts to keep its member business customers and employees healthy with a common sense, narrowly crafted ordinance. Instead, the organization promises to fight the county all the way to the Supreme Court. It makes no sense.

Would the Chamber want no county health department with the power to quarantine citizens who have COVID-19? No health department to close down hot spot businesses, including factories, where COVID-19 is spreading through the workforce? No health department to impose county- wide stay-at-home orders in a dire emergency, like Arizona is experiencing, where COVID-19 caseloads overload the capacity of local hospitals?

The chamber’s extreme reaction to the ordinance, we think, can only be understood as part of a larger political pile-on involving Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s business lobby, Open Wisconsin Now, the libertarian Koch Brothers-supported organization that organized protests against Gov. Tony Evers Safer at Home order, and Empower Wisconsin, an arch-conservative media platform with Koch Brothers ties.

Even Rachel Campos Duffy, wife to former Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican, has joined this anti-ordinance brigade. Going on Twitter, Campos-Duffy, a Fox News commentator, criticized the proposed county ordinance as “more like Berkeley, California, than Central Wisconsin.”

Opponents of the COVID-19 law won something of a victory on Thursday. Faced with the chamber lawsuit, the county’s executive committee voted to send the proposal back to committee while a Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) task force reviews it. This strategic retreat may prove valuable, but we are skeptical it will end the controversy. Our sense is that opponents are deadset on killing the ordinance, either at the county board level, or, if they have to, in the courts.

There is nothing wrong with Marathon County leaning on WCA to strengthen its ordinance, especially if it is destined to wind up in front of Supreme Court justices, but supervisors need to be prepared to face down the law’s attackers and support its own health department when the proposal returns for a vote. Supervisors need to reject arguments that the ordinance will turn the county health department into a COVID-19 Gestapo. That’s not the Marathon County Health Department. For years, the department has quarantined individuals for tuberculosis and, within memory, it only had to get a court order once. During the entire COVID- 19 pandemic, the health department has used voluntary compliance, not police powers, to help keep county coronavirus numbers relatively low.

The stakes here are high. At risk is a 91-year tradition of county health departments in Wisconsin. Let supervisors hear the perspective of the business community, WMC, Empower Wisconsin and even Rachel Campos Duffy. In the end, however, supervisors need to stand firm. They must protect the public health and give the health department clear legal authority to deal with COVID-19.

Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review