Posted on

Clark County Board says COVID emergency is over

On June 11, Clark County recorded its highest singleday number of new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began in March. On June 12, the county Board of Supervisors decided the emergency is over.

On a 16-13 vote, the Board rejected a resolution that would have extended its local public health emergency from June 15 to July 17, in so doing reopening the Courthouse in Neillsville and disbanding a crisis team that had been dealing almost daily with coronavirus issues for three months. Supervisors who opposed the extension said the county has to get back to business and learn to live with the virus, while those who favored it claim further precautions are needed to protect county employees and the public from potential virus spread.

The Courthouse and other county facilities such as the Highway Department office in Neillsville and Adult Development Services in Greenwood reopened to the public on Tuesday, but with the county asking that residents visit offices only for necessary business and wear face masks when they do.

“Please use alternate means of communicating with county agencies such as telephone, email, U.S. Mail, etc. to conduct business where possible,” said a release issued by the county on Monday. “If you need to visit a county facility you are encouraged to wear a face covering such as a cloth mask. If you have symptoms associated with COVID-19 you are asked to conduct your business through alternate means and avoid in-person visits.”

The day before the Board met in Neillsville (with 21 supervisors attending inperson and eight through telecommunication), the county Health Department reported five new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 50 since the public health emergency was declared on March 16. That rise was the largest single day total yet, and kept the county above all of its neighbors in per capita infection rate.

“We expect this trend to continue, unfortunately,” said Health Department Director Brittany Mews.

While early during the pandemic the county saw a cluster of cases in its northwestern corner, new cases have since popped up in all areas, Mews said.

She said cases have been “sporadic through the county” and about 100 people are currently under quarantine order either because they tested positive for COVID-19 or are known to have been in close contact with someone who has.

“We have lab-confirmed cases in nearly every part of the county during this pandemic,” Mews said at the county Board meeting. “Clark County is at one of the highest incidence rates of any of the counties surrounding us.”

The resolution before the Board last week would not have added any new restrictions, but would have extended the local public health emergency until July 17. County attorney Jake Brunette said if the resolution does not pass, “It is back to business as usual, pre-COVID.”

The Courthouse and other county offices have been closed to the public since March 16, although most employees have been working either from their offices or through telecommunicating.

“Clark County has not had any offices closed,” Brunette said. “The Courthouse has been locked. We are highly encouraging the use of masks. That is not a requirement.”

Brunette said the crisis team recommends extension of the emergency order as a way of limiting spread of the virus.

“The primary concern of the team is the health and safety of the employees and the public that relies on the county for services and for operations,” Brunette said.

From a legal standpoint, Brunette said the emergency

“This thing is not gonna get locked up in the closet. This is not going away. We’ve got to figure out a way to live with it.” -- Clark County Supervisor Fred Schindler, Curtiss order protects the county.

“One concern I have is the increased risk of liability for an unsafe working environment,” he said.

One situation the county has seen with employees is that some have family members at home and they are afraid to come to work and catch the virus and then carry it back with them.

“There is a lot of concern for employees to come back to work at the Courthouse without a plan,” Brunette said. “You’re gonna have employees that are gonna be concerned and probably feel unsafe to come back to work.”

Emergency Management Director John Ross said he surveyed the county’s 27 departments for a read of what the concerns are. He said 23 of 27 departments indicated they are concerned about reopening. Twenty-five of them have employees who have regular face-to-face contact with customers.

“Only eight of 27 departments felt they were prepared (to reopen to the public),” Ross said. “That’s a significant number and something to keep in mind.”

Ross also said most department heads have indicated it would be better for the county to wait a while longer to reopen, due to lingering concerns with a virus that has not run its course.

“Departments want to do business. They are just looking at flexibility to do it by alternative means,” Ross said. The emergency extension would “allow us the same authority that you granted us in March. If things dramatically improve before July 17, we can obviously evaluate the emergency order at that time. We’re just asking for another month to keep working through the situation as it goes.”

Some supervisors said the county has had enough time to prepare to open offices again. Fritz Garbisch of Granton said offi ces have been closed already for three months and that time could have been used to prepare to reopen.

“Somebody was sleeping at the wheel that they didn’t have everything in place today,” Garbisch said.

Scott Jalling of Owen said more should have been done in recent weeks to prepare.

“How come that wasn’t done in the three months leading up to this meeting?” he said. “My thought was come June 15 you would have a plan in place to open up the Courthouse. If this (resolution) fails and you have to open up the Courthouse on June 16, you’re not ready.”

Chuck Rueth of Loyal said extending the emergency order to July 17 is “too far out” and offered an amendment to cut the date back to July 6.

“I just feel all we’re gonna be doing is kicking the can down the road,” he said. “Let’s get our Courthouse open again. It does belong to the taxpayers of Clark County, but let’s do it safely.”

Bryce Luchterhand of Unity spoke against the amendment, saying the Board can’t just pick a date on the calendar and assume all will be well by then.

“I don’t think you know exactly what’s gonna be on anybody’s plate on July 6,” he said. “We don’t have any idea where we’re gonna be on July 6.”

Luchterhand said it would be “premature” to reopen county functions now or on July 6.

“I don’t think we’re talking about a new normal yet,” he said. “We’re not gonna have a new normal until we find out if we’re gonna have a vaccine or people can be treated for it.”

Dick Lange of Colby asked what is the county’s “actionable data” for declaring when the emergency order should be ended. Without a specific set of numbers to use, he said the order might never end.

“It’s just like a crisis addiction,” Lange said. “It just keeps moving on and moving on and moving on. You’re just continuing this indefinitely.”

Brunette said it’s difficult to set exact numbers when predictions of virus trends keep changing.

“We have no idea where it’s going right now,” he said. “The expectation is that there’s gonna be more cases than ever.”

Mews said county health officials — especially Health Department employees who’ve been identifying cases and following through with contact tracing of exposed people — have had their hands full in recent weeks and have not had time to put a reopening plan in place.

“We are working tirelessly,” Mews said. “We need your support to ensure our employees are safe from the spread. We’ve been extremely busy so we haven’t had time to do the planning. We are working extremely long hours and overtime to protect you … I personally feel we need to show our employees you want to protect their health and safety and you should want to protect your residents.”

Supervisor Tom Wilcox of Curtiss said he has received more constituent calls on this issue than any other since he’s been on the Board, “and they all want it opened up.”

He also said the public’s faith in its leaders during this pandemic has been waning, and people don’t believe the numbers.

“The people have lost confidence in public health,” Wilcox said. “Unfortunately, if you lose the consent of the governed, you’ve lost it all. It’s a little bit unfortunate, but it’s the truth.”

Supervisor Sharon Rogers of Greenwood said the issue is not about faith in government, but the county’s attempt to protect its citizens and employees from a potentially deadly disease.

“The fear, the mistrust, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not valid,” Rogers said.

Supervisors voted 17-12 against Rueth’s amendment to extend the order only until July 6, putting the original resolution to extend it to July 17 back in play.

Supervisor Ken Gerhardt of Neillsville said the county can’t wait forever to get back to business.

“We’ve gotta have some urgency to reopen,” he said. “We don’t know if COVID is going away or it’s not going away. We do know that this place has gotta open back up. We’ve gotta go back with some type of normalcy.”

Supervisor Fred Schindler of Curtiss said the results of the survey Ross conducted of department readiness to reopen were “extremely skewed” as departments with one or two employees got equal weight with the Rehabilitation & Living Center, which has about half of all employees. The Rehab & Living Center has to operate during the pandemic, Schindler said.

“Up there, it’s business as usual,” he said. “They have no choice but to show up for work … Fifty percent of Clark County employees have no choice but to show up for work.”

Schindler also said life cannot stop because of the virus, and the county has to adopt to the circumstances.

“This thing is not gonna get locked up in the closet,” he said. “This is not going away. We’ve got to figure out a way to live with it.”

The Board should be aggressive in moving on, Schindler added, “to lead and put fear aside and build any new normals you can to show the leadership and move on and live with it.”