Some local Wisconsin officials are now tossing coronavirus orders over legal concerns

Some local Wisconsin officials are now tossing coronavirus orders over legal concerns

MADISON, Wis. – Leaders of cities and counties who raced this week to implement restrictions in the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling against Gov. Tony Evers are now tossing those orders, many citing uncertainty over whether they are legal.

At least 17 communities had issued new orders aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus by Friday morning — but hours later, at least eight had dropped them including Brown County, where cases of the virus have skyrocketed in recent weeks.

The decisions by local officials mean an increasing number of communities in Wisconsin won't have any restrictions in place to curb infections as the coronavirus slows but doesn't stop.

In Brown County, Health Officer Anna Destree urged people in the area to voluntarily follow the rules included in the order.

"Just because the order goes away doesn't mean there isn't a pandemic," she said.

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Joining Brown County in changing course, as of 4:30 p.m. Friday, were Calumet, Kenosha, Manitowoc and Winnebago counties, and the cities of Appleton, Cudahy, De Pere and Menasha.

The orders were only in place about a day following a ruling by the state Supreme Court that struck down Evers' order to stay at home, requiring him to instead use a legislative process known as rulemaking to implement any of the restrictions in the order.

Local health officers issued similar orders to replace Evers' but the legal grounds were not certain. Evers' chief legal counsel said the Supreme Court ruling didn't apply to local health officials and that the orders were lawful.

But other attorneys and officials at the Wisconsin Counties Association said they didn't know whether local health officials had the power to close businesses, among other restrictions.

Evers this week predicted chaos would result from the Supreme Court ruling.

"I can't imagine another state that is in this predicament," he said.

The local governments are backing off their health orders just as Republican lawmakers insist it should be up to local officials rather than state leaders to determine whether people should stay at home and businesses should close.

“I didn’t vote for every single city council and county board around the state, but I certainly think it should have the right to do what they think is necessary to keep their community safe,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in an interview Thursday.

But in the 24 hours after the Republican from Racine County said that, community after community abandoned their local orders over concerns they didn’t have the ability to keep them in place. In their view, the lawsuit orchestrated by Republican lawmakers is what prevented them from being able to act.

"It is deeply frustrating and disappointing that the legislature and Governor will not work together, or even attempt to do so, in the interest of statewide health and clarity," Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford said in a statement. "The people of Appleton are frustrated and confused as a result of this inaction, and we are not going to wait for the State to act if they aren’t going to anyway."

In Outagamie County, health officials rescinded an order they issued a day before because of the status of the virus.

"After conferring with the governor, it became clear that the legislature has no plans for a staged and sensible reopening of our public spaces," Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson said.

Fridays' tumult also came after GOP lawmakers this week made clear there won't be a statewide game plan to navigate the coronavirus outbreak anytime soon — if ever.

GOP Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater on Friday rejected a new proposal from Gov. Tony Evers' administration to replace the stay-at-home order that was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this week.

The court ruling gave a committee led by Nass veto power over a new plan — which he signaled he'd seek to use if Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm didn't go back to the drawing board.

"The DHS (proposal) leaves little doubt that Secretary-Designee Palm is no longer acting in a lawful capacity by circumventing the Supreme Court ruling and once again trying to improperly take control of the daily lives of every Wisconsin citizen," Nass said in a statement asking Evers to withdraw the plan.

Nass' comments come a day after Vos and Nass' co-chairwoman Rep. Joan Ballweg said they don't see a need to adopt any new guidelines for the state, despite repeatedly saying previously they were suing to block Evers' order to be able to work with him on a new plan.

Now, cities and counties are left to come up with their own rules — putting in place a patchwork of regulations in some cases varying widely between neighboring counties.

It's unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who brought the lawsuit with Vos and is running for Congress, supports the approach of Assembly Republicans.

Fitzgerald has not responded to repeated requests for interviews and answers to questions about whether he agreed with Vos on leaving it to cities and counties to develop their own plans.

Vos said Thursday he didn’t want to put state rules in place unless Evers could persuade him that they were needed because local officials couldn’t address the issue. But a day later, numerous local leaders concluded they didn’t have that power.

Not all communities were changing course. For instance, Dane County plans to keep in place its strict stay-at-home order.

“I’m confident our order is legal and valid. Hopefully, everyone will continue to follow it to help the suppression of the disease,” said Marci Paulsen, an assistant city attorney who represents Madison and Dane County’s joint health department.

She said she did not believe the Supreme Court’s decision this week would limit the ability of local officials to issue health orders.

The court struck down the state order because it found state officials needed to go through a rulemaking process that is overseen by lawmakers. But local officials are not required to use that process, she noted.

Follow Molly Beck on Twitter: @MollyBeck.

Contributing: Doug Schneider and Haley BeMiller, Green Bay Press-Gazette


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