COVID-19 ordinance would be enforceable
Corbett leans on report
A Marathon County Health Department order to impose COVID-19 restrictions would be constitutional and enforceable if backed up with a county ordinance, Scott Corbett, county corporation counsel, said last week Wednesday.
This pronouncement, he said, follows from a 60-page guideline written by the von Briesen and Roper law firm for the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA).
Corbett said the county, if it feels the need, can quarantine individuals, close businesses or even impose a general lock-down on life in Marathon County if such actions would be both reasonable and necessary during an epidemic.
“Yes, I believe so,” he said. “If Marathon County wants to pass an ordinance, I believe that if it was carefully crafted it would not violate anyone’s constitutional rights.”
The WCA report speaks at length to clarify that while the recent Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin Legislature vs. Palm, did not specifically narrow the authority of county health offi cers, the ruling suggests the need for health officers to back up their orders with a county ordinance. “The local authority should ensure that any measures that direct people to stay home, forbid certain travel or close certain businesses speak specifically to the local authority’s statutory power to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases and forbid public gatherings when deemed necessary to control outbreaks or epidemics,” the report reads.
The WCA guideline states that a county health department can enforce a quarantine of individuals with either guards or law enforcement officers placed outside a home or, if the person fails to obey the quarantine, an individual can be placed in a hospital or other safe place to be kept secure.
A local health department can impose fines up to $500 and jail time up to 30 days to enforce an order, but cannot seek criminal penalties based soley on a county ordinance.
“Criminal conduct must be set out with specificity in statute or in a properly promulgated rule before criminal sanctions could follow,” reads the report.
The report states a local health department may forbid a “public gathering” to control an epidemic but it is an unsettled question what a public gathering is. The term has not been defined either in statute or in Wisconsin courts. Likely, the report predicts, a dictionary definition would prevail in a lawsuit.
County administrator Lance Leonhard said on Friday the county’s Health and Health and Human Service Committee will be briefed this week on the WCA report and asked whether it has interest in considering any legislation.
Corbett earlier this year drafted a COVID-19 ordinance based on guidance from the county’s Board of Health and Human Services Committee. That effort was sidedlined after county board chairman Kurt Gibbs recommended getting legal guidance from WCA.