EAU CLAIRE — A new ordinance proposed for the city and county of Eau Claire would back the top local health officials' continued ability to enact public health orders during pandemics, but give elected officials the ability to water-down those rules if they choose to do so.
The Eau Claire City-County Board of Health met Monday afternoon via a teleconference that was open to the public to discuss the proposed legislation.
“This ordinance does not expand the health officer’s authority beyond what state statues already allow,” Eau Claire assistant city attorney Jenessa Stromberger said.
Along with state laws on powers and duties of the public health officer, Stromberger said she and county attorney Tim Sullivan reviewed recent state Supreme Court decisions that struck down the statewide safer-at-home order and Dane County’s limit on in-person classes when crafting the local ordinance.
If approved next month by the City Council and County Board, the ordinance would allow the director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department to continue issuing local public health orders. Local orders in place since mid-May have included limits on the size of public gatherings, requirements that businesses have 50% of their usual capacity and that establishments enact measures to allow distance between patrons to reduce the chances of spreading COVID-19.
The added legislative oversight in the proposed ordinance allows elected city or county officials to decide whether rules in health orders should be fully enforced or just an advisory.
Following the enactment of an order, the County Board and City Council can each vote on whether the health order should be considered as a recommendation or whether it should be fully enforced. If they decide to take no action, the order would stand as it is.
The proposed ordinance would limit each public health order to up to 30 days in duration — recently the Health Department has been issuing them every two weeks. Orders can be renewed, but only for a total of 180 days.
If a problem persists beyond that, the health director would need a vote of elected city and county officials to extend public health orders for up to a year. Should the same health problem continue after a full year, the County Board and City Council would need to vote to continue enforcing a public health order.
A $200 fine on individuals or businesses that don’t comply to local health orders also is included in the draft ordinance. The city’s version of the proposed ordinance also includes the potential penalty of violators losing licenses they hold that are issued by the city.
Stromberger noted that the Health Department already has the authority to issue fines, but typically tries to work with offenders to address problems before issuing citations.
Before the Board of Health unanimously recommended that the elected bodies of the city and county consider the ordinance, the panel heard from 20 people who strongly disagreed.
“An unelected official should not be granted more power in our representative form of government, it is not constitutional,” said Amber Richards via teleconference.
She urged the end of impositions and restrictions already put in place by public health orders.
Others doubted the severity of the coronavirus and how prevalent it is.
“I believe there never was a true pandemic,” Pamela Johnson said, arguing COVID-19 is severe as the flu.
She believes that fresh air, exercise, vitamins and other efforts to strengthen one’s own immune system should be used to fight coronavirus, not a government order.
“In short — my body, my choice,” Johnson said.
Those who spoke on the phone Monday to the Board of Health had gathered outside the Eau Claire County Courthouse on Monday to protest the ordinance.
Richards and others mentioned how they were frustrated and disappointed they had to make their comments via teleconference, which was occasionally muddled by people on the line with background noise coming through their telephones, instead of in person.
Eau Claire city and county government bodies have been conducting their meetings for months using Internet-based videoconferencing systems to cut the chances of spreading COVID-19.
Merey Price, chairwoman of the Board of Health, concluded after questioning attorneys and Health Director Lieske Giese that the proposed ordinance is not an unconstitutional government overreach as members of the public who spoke earlier in the meeting had decried.
“It’s been made clear this isn’t the case,” Price said. “This is providing many of the guardrails people were asking for about having elected officials involved in the process.”
The local ordinance is also being proposed due to a lack of general health orders from the state and national levels, Giese said.
“This type of order has never been done at a local level in this state, that I’m aware of,” she said.
The ordinance requires that local health orders rely on the best available scientific understanding and be based on local conditions. Giese said her department relies on experts at the state Department of Health Services for scientific information on diseases. The local health department reports daily on the number of coronavirus cases, tests and other measures of how the community is doing with the pandemic.
Several people who spoke early in the meeting pointed out that only six people have died in Eau Claire County from COVID-19 as an indication the pandemic’s local effects have been overstated.
County Supervisor Martha Nieman acknowledged the statistic, but added that there’s much that is unknown about the long-term effects of coronavirus and whether it will lead to long-term chronic conditions in those who recover from it.
“As far as I am concerned, the death rate it seems with this disease is the tip of the iceberg,” she said.