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County officers now have COVID forfeiture authority

Clark County Sheriff’s Department officers now have the authority to fine citizens who knowingly violate isolation/ quarantine orders associated with coronavirus.

Based on county Board of Supervisors action in Neillsville on July 16, the county health officer can request that law enforcement issue a citation of not less than $100 nor more than $500 to any resident who does not comply with an order to stay quarantined or isolated if they are known to have coronavirus or been in close contact with someone who has. On a 25-2 vote, the Board approved the second reading of an amendment that adds the enforcement penalty power under the county’s “Disease Control” ordinance. Supervisors Duane Boon and Bill Neville of Neillsville cast the dissenting votes.

County Health Officer Brittany Mews told the Board in June and again at last week’s session that her department continues to deal with citizens who will not comply with orders to stay isolated if they have tested positive for COVID- 19 or through contact tracing been found to have shared space with someone who has. The county’s ordinance already gave the health officer the authority to “take all measures necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases” but included no forfeiture penalty provisions. The county had the option to take a non-compliant person to court for a possible injunction, but that process can take time and would be of no use when it is determined a person needs to be isolated immediately to avoid infecting others.

Mews said as of July 16 there were 39 active coronavirus cases in the county and another 106 people who were asked to stay isolated because they had contact with an infected person. That number changes daily, as new positive tests emerge and others who’ve had COVID-19 finish with their 14-day isolation period. As of last week, the county had 127 total positive tests, with 10 of them hospitalized at one time or another, and seven deaths.

Mews said the ordinance change is needed to give her some immediate action to take to urge people to isolate.

“We still, unfortunately, are experiencing non-compliance,” Mews said.

Mews said she and staff members have also been dealing with “verbally aggressive individuals” and “uncooperative businesses” as they attempt to keep at home those who have COVID or been in contact with someone who has.

Under the new ordinance, if Mews identifies someone who will not abide by an isolation/quarantine order, she will contact the Sheriff’s Department and it will send an

“We still, unfortunately, are experiencing noncompliance,” -- Clark County Health Officer Brittany Mews officer to issue a citation.

Asked if the Sheriff’s Department will follow through, Sheriff Scott Haines said, “If it’s a blatant violation … yes, we will.”

Haines noted that since this is a county ordinance, local city officers cannot enforce it.

Mews said positive test results continue to occur in Clark County and have increased in recent days, as they have across Wisconsin. She said the numbers are not rising solely because more tests are being administered.

“It’s not because there’s been more testing occurring, which is a common myth out there,” she said. “These numbers are the result of community spread within Wisconsin.”

Mews said her department is working on development of a testing strategy for the county that would help find more cases in the county and allow health workers to do contact tracing work to get all impacted people in isolation to slow the spread. Face masks, social distancing, avoidance of crowds and hand washing will still go a long way toward that goal too.

“I ask you to please follow simple safety precautions,” she said.

Mews noted that she has not placed any restrictions on gathering sizes in the county, even though she can if she feels it is warranted. She said it’s not the size of a crowd that matters most, but that people maintain six feet of distance between each other.

“The number really doesn’t matter if the precautions are being followed,” she said.

In other COVID-19 related action, the Board on a 17-10 vote passed a resolution that establishes a policy in the Clark County Employee Handbook to deal with situations brought about by a public health risk. The new policy gives the county administrative coordinator and county board chairman direction for advising departments and employees on guidelines to follow during a disease outbreak. Those may include “strongly encouraging” use of face masks and physical distancing, restriction of access to county facilities, and encouraging employees to work from home when possible. S u p e rvisor Fred Schindler of Curtiss said the policy gives the administrative coordinator and board chairman authority to implement practices that should be approved by the full board.

“It seems like this gives an awful lot of power that the county board won’t have a say in. It’s too much power,” Schindler said.

Supervisor Sharon Rogers of Greenwood said some of the policy provisions are not being adhered to now, so why set them into policy?

“I just think this is kind of useless ordinance if it’s not going to be followed,” she said.

Another resolution passed last week calls for the board Chairman Wayne Hendrickson of Unity and Vice Chairman Joe Waichulis of Thorp to remain in their seats through the 2020-22 Board term, even though they were not re-elected to them in April as they would normally be. In April, the board suspended its rules to not hold officer elections in the normal time frame due to COVID-19, and also did not change any committee assignments. The resolution on the table last week called for the board to “bypass” the traditional reorganization process and let officers and committees stand through April 2022.

If it did not pass, Hendrickson said the board would then go through the officer election/committee appointment process in August.

Referring to the measure passed by the board in June to end the COVID-19 emergency declaration and reopen county facilities to the public, Rogers asked why the board wouldn’t hold new elections as normal.

“Why are we doing this? We’ve said there’s no COVID emergency,” she said.

The resolution passed on a 14-13 vote so Hendrickson and Waichulis will retain their seats and all committee assignments will stay as they have been.