On Wednesday, May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the extension of Gov. Evers’ Safer at Home order from April 24 to May 26 is invalid.
Two days later on Friday, May 15, Sawyer County Public Officer Julia Lyons responded with an order for the county not nearly as restrictive as Safer at Home.
In fact, Lyons’ order only “strongly recommends” that Wisconsin Economic Development Corporations’ (WEDC) guidelines be followed regarding good hygiene, social distancing, disinfection, wearing a face covering (such as a mask), staying home if sick, sheltering if place if considered “medically vulnerable” and working and studying from home when possible.
For now this is a recommendation, but Lyons said she reserves the authority for more drastic orders if required to stop the spread of the pandemic.
Right after the Supreme Court ruling, there were five counties that passed orders continuing the Safer at Home restrictions, but some later rescinded orders under pressure or questions of legal authority.
Scott Manley, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) executive vice president of government relations, said in a webinar on Thursday, April 14, the court decision related to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) overstepping its administrative rule-making authority, and Manly questioned the legality of counties issuing their own Safer at Home orders.
Then on Friday, May 15, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul issued an opinion that the court’s order addressed DHS’s authority under state statute 252.02 and not the local health officers’ authority under 252.03.
Kaul said the court found the Safer at Home order lacked enforcement because there were no defined crimes under the state statute it addressed, and the DHS had exercised powers beyond its scope regarding “directing people to stay at home, forbidding certain travel and closing certain businesses.”
Concerning the authority of local public health officers, Kaul wrote that under 252.03 the local public health officer has “powers to ‘prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases’ and ‘forbids public gatherings when deemed necessary to control outbreaks or epidemics.’”
He added, “Nothing in the supreme court’s decision even arguably limits other measures directed by a local authority...”
Lyons has teleconferenced with the county’s legal counsel and is confident of the authority vested in her position. She isn’t considering reconstituting Safer at Home, but more targeted orders could be issued if warranted.
“When I do have an order, I want a really good reason behind it so I have buy-in from the public,” she said. “At this time, I would like to re-open with the strongly recommended guidance and see how we do. We will continue to monitor, and should we have an uptick, we are going to have to look if we are truly following those best practices, are they working for us and what else do we have to put in place.”
More positives anticipated
Working in the county’s and region’s favor is a low number of positive COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, May 19, there were only four positives in Sawyer County with three recovered and 552 testing negative.
However, Lyons has been very vocal that the Safer at Home restriction had a large impact on those low numbers, especially because it restricted mixing in bars and restaurants by those visiting from outside the county from areas with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases — communities where the novel coronavirus was in “community spread.”
With the invalidation of Safer at Home and bars and restaurants allowed to have seated diners again, Lyons predicts the number of COVID-19 positives in the county will probably rise.
“I have not been silent about that, and people have to be OK with that,” she said. “That was part of wanting to re-open. People wanted to re-open, so we do anticipate seeing cases, but the thing is can we identify those cases fast enough to be able to isolate them and their close contacts so it doesn’t spread everywhere. And if we can do that, we can maintain control … Safer at Home was put in place to get us to the point where we can test, isolate and do contact tracing (following where individuals who have tested positive might have infected others) and keep it at a rate where the health care system can manage. It wasn’t just to stop the cases, but control the rise and give us time to get prepared.”
Lyons was asked if a rise of 15-20 positive test results in the county would elevate the level of concern.
“That would raise a lot of concern, and I would have to look at where those cases are happening,” she said. “Are they all over the place, or are they related to a certain area? Can I connect them to a big gathering? Well, then do we have to look at gatherings? I want to be specific in orders that I write so they are making sense to people.”
To help Lyons with contact tracing, her staff has been expanded to include a retired nurse, and part-time employees have been made full time.
“We are going to bring more people onboard,” she said, “and if we get overwhelmed we can bring in the state, but I would love to keep it local.”
Lyons prefers using local contact tracers who understand the life, work and culture of the area.
Over 2 percent of county residents having been tested for COVID 19, plus another 382, mostly county residents, who were tested last Thursday in the Village of Winter and Friday in the City of Hayward. That data provides a “baseline” to watch how the disease trends in the county.
With Memorial Day approaching and the opening of the summer tourist season and thousands of visitors anticipated, a new level of concerns are being raised and test data obtained before the season might reveal the impact of that tourism.
“We are going to use that (test data) as our guidance and keep monitoring as things go forward,” she said. “I‘m