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Sheboygan County’s open-ended health ordinance

Empower Wisconsin | Aug. 18, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Sheboygan County is looking to pass an ordinance that could give its local health officer wide-ranging power to deal with COVID-19 and other communicable diseases.

The Board of Supervisors will meet at 6 p.m. tonight to discuss Section 10.09 of the county’s health code. Officials claim they won’t vote on the proposed ordinance tonight, but will move it on to the executive committee and then back to the full board for approval next month.

It received the unanimous support of the Sheboygan County Health and Human Services Committee last week.

The ordinance would create a civil enforcement mechanism for any countywide public health orders issued by the county health officer. Supervisors would first have to review the orders, however, before they go into effect. The board may then direct the health officer to do what is “reasonable and necessary” for the prevention and suppression of the disease.

“It positions us to respond and protect as needed,” County Administrator Adam Payne told the Sheboygan Press. 

But the ordinance is short on specifics, leaving much open to the discretion of an unelected bureaucrat.

“There’s not a lot of details. It says the officer can make orders they deem appropriate (in dealing with communicable diseases) and in banning pubic gatherings,” Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski told Empower Wisconsin.

The open-ended language of the ordinance could present problems for prosecutors — and for civil liberties.

Urmanski said he would rather see voluntary compliance with reasonable health orders the community supports instead of enforcement measures that come with fines. The orders could possibly come with questionable provisions like quarantine guards with enforcement authority, as La Crosse County has implemented and other county governments have tried to push through.

“I’m not going to take court time to file a million of these cases,” the district attorney said. “I have to enforce the laws whether I like them or not. I’m not going to say we’re not going to enforce some ordinance, but I have to make sure we can actually prove it.”

The proposal, as written, does not include a sunset clause. 

Violators of any order issued by the health officer and reviewed by the board could be fined $25 for a first offense, $50 for a second and $100 for third offenses.

“Hopefully, if increasingly more people take personal responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 going forward, there won’t be a need for any public health orders,” the county administrator told the Sheboygan newspaper.

News You can Use 

The Sheboygan County Board Supervisors meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Sheboygan County Courthouse, 615 N. 6th Street. Find the agenda here.

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