The Pierce County Board on Tuesday approved an ordinance that had generated significant resistance regarding the duties of the county health officer related to communicable diseases.
The ordinance, which passed by a 13-3 vote, was proposed to introduce a civil penalty for noncompliance with a health order to replace the criminal penalty in state statutes, according to a news release from the board.
“The Pierce County Board passed this ordinance so it could be used in a critical situation, when immediate action has to be taken,” County Board Chairman Jeff Holst said in the release. “We don’t have any communicable diseases orders in place right now, and our health officer has no plans to issue any orders anytime soon.”
Holst said the county, which had reported 161 cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, will continue following the advisory that has been in place since spring and does not include any enforcement components. The Pierce County Public Health Department’s advisory recommends against mass gatherings over 10 people indoors and over 50 people outdoors, and encourages businesses to have a COVID-19 safety plan and residents to practice social distancing.
Board meetings that included discussion of the ordinance attracted hundreds of people, with county officials saying most public commenters were opposed to the change. Two Republican candidates for the 3rd Congressional District seat both weighed in against the change, with Derrick Van Orden of Hager City arguing it amounted to handing over power to an unelected official and Jessi Ebben of Eau Claire maintaining such health orders went beyond the role of government. Ebben even organized a “vote no” protest before the meeting.
“A lot of misinformation was circulated on social media about this ordinance, and that raised issues for some members of the public,” Ruth Wood, chairwoman of the Pierce County Board of Health, said in the release. “The facts are that local health officers have used this decades-old authority to stop the spread of diseases like pertussis and measles. This ordinance is not an expansion of the local health officer’s authority. All it does is add a different, and less serious enforcement mechanism than what was previously available to us through the state statute.”
Board members who supported the ordinance indicated they did so mainly so that emergency measures can be taken in case the COVID-19 situation starts to overburden local hospital and public health capacity. Until an emergency situation arises, Pierce County officials said they will continue to focus on hot spots to try to control the spread of disease.
“We’ve been clear with our health officer that for now, she needs to focus on controlling COVID-19 by focusing on outbreaks,” County Board Vice Chairman Jon Aubart said. “She and the board agree that at this time a broad order is not desirable or likely enforceable.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, AZ Snyder, Pierce County’s health officer, explained that enforcement and orders are a last resort.
“Public health uses many tools to protect our communities from disease. Education, engagement and empowerment are our first lines of defense,” Snyder said. “But in certain situations enforcement is a vital tool when these efforts have failed. The local health officer can already issue fines under other ordinances, like those regulating restaurants, but we haven’t had to in many years because we make every effort to support voluntary compliance and have had good results with local cooperation.”