Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag was not surprised by this week’s Supreme Court decision to strike down the state’s safer-at-home order.
He was surprised by the timing.
The decision was made public shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, leaving municipalities scrambling to learn what it meant and which powers were left to municipalities, Freitag said.
It wasn’t until 11 p.m. that Rock County health officials issued an order to continue safer-at-home guidelines, which left the county without regulations for about six hours.
Freitag said it was unfortunate the Supreme Court did not provide a time period—at least 24 hours—to transition out of the statewide safer-at-home order.
Here are more of Freitag’s responses during a Friday interview:
Gazette: Why did the city choose to comply with Rock County’s safer-at-home order?
Freitag: The city respects the rule of law, he said.
Rock County’s public health officer has the authority to issue such an order, and the city will continue to follow any lawful orders made by officials.
Those who do not agree with the decision should reach out to their local officials, he said.
While in the military, Freitag traveled to many countries where people do not respect laws. Americans should realize how lucky they are to live the way we do, he said.
”I would tell you people may not always appreciate what they have until they lose it.”
Gazette: Why didn’t the city issue its own order? Would that have been a consideration if the county did not step up?
Freitag: The county’s order included everything the city would have considered, and it makes sense to keep things consistent for as large a geographic area as possible, he said.
Freitag believes the city would have had to take some kind of action if the county didn’t do so.
City officials will send the county a set of recommendations they have for reopening the county.
Gazette: What do you say to those who think safer-at-home guidelines should be lifted entirely?
Freitag: He understands and sympathizes with people’s concerns. Some people will disagree no matter what decision is made, he said.
Officials have to balance protecting people’s lives with protecting their livelihoods, he said.
Everyone needs to apply common sense moving forward, Freitag said.
Gazette: Walworth County has chosen not to issue a safer-at-home order. Are you concerned this will cause issues in Rock County?
Freitag: A regional approach to safer-at-home orders and COVID-19 would be better than a county-by-county one, he said. He prefers to see cooperation across southcentral Wisconsin.
The chance for exposure to the disease will be greater in Walworth County, and Freitag said he is concerned about people bringing the disease into Janesville and Rock County.
Gazette: Public testing sites opened up in Beloit this week. Are they a possibility for Janesville?
Freitag: Janesville is planning for public testing sites but has to work out the logistics.
Anyone can go to the public testing sites in Beloit, and Freitag encourages Janesville residents to do so if they think they are sick.
Janesville will monitor how things go in Beloit and decide how to move forward from there.
Gazette: Beloit officials have addressed the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Hispanic and Latino population. Is that a concern in Janesville?
Freitag: Data from the county health department show 10.11% of Janesville cases are in Hispanic or Latino individuals. The city’s population is 5.4% Hispanic or Latino.
City officials were surprised to see that data and do not know why the Hispanic community has been affected that way, he said.
The city has a bilingual emergency operations center staffer who is working with people in Hispanic and Spanish-speaking communities to increase education and awareness, he said.
Freitag said the data are good to have but are another source of frustration with city-county information-sharing. The data he receives is limited and doesn’t paint a full picture, he said.
City officials are also concerned about the elderly population. People age 65 and older make up 16% of the city’s population but represent 24% of COVID-19 cases.
Some local health officials in Wisconsin rescinded their stay-at-home orders Friday after attorneys warned they could be vulnerable to legal challenges after the state Supreme Court wiped out Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide order.
The Wisconsin Counties Association said after Wednesday’s ruling that it was unclear whether local orders mimicking the statewide mandate, like the one still in effect in Rock County, would stand up in court. By Friday, health officials in Kenosha, Brown, Manitowoc and Outagamie counties had dropped orders, as did the cities of Cudahy and Appleton.
“While the WCA and outside legal counsel did not opine that counties were outright prohibited from taking such actions, they did indicate that overall, the legal basis to do so is likely weak,” Brown County’s attorney, David Hemery, said in a letter Friday to the county’s health officer, Anna Destree.
Wisconsin’s largest and most liberal counties, Milwaukee and Dane, home to about 1.5 million of the state’s 6 million residents, left their orders in place.
“We think this is good public health,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. “It appears some people are following the political winds. We still have hundreds of people dying and thousands of people sick.”
Evers in March banned nonessential travel and ordered nonessential businesses to close in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order was supposed to expire in late April, but Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm extended it to May 26 at Evers’ direction.
Republican legislators frustrated with the order’s economic fallout asked the state Supreme Court to strike the order down. The conservative-controlled court did so Wednesday in a 4-3 decision that found Palm had acted beyond her authority.
The ruling led bars, restaurants, hair salons and other businesses to open or begin planning to do so. Fearing that infections might spike as people begin moving around again, about a dozen counties issued their own stay-at-home orders.
State law allows local health officers to “do what is reasonable and necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease.” They can issue edicts without going through the rule-making process that the high court said state officials must use.
But the WCA’s attorney, Andrew Phillips, said it is unclear how far officers can go under that statute. Even though rule-making doesn’t come into play on the county level, he said, the Supreme Court ruling might be cited as precedent in subsequent cases.
Attorneys for the state Department of Justice, which is run by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, believe the court’s opinion doesn’t extend to local authority. Health officials in Dane County, a liberal stronghold, said they believe their stay-at-home order is legal because state law allows local officials to issue any order to suppress a communicable disease.
“(The Supreme Court ruling) has nothing to do with local health authorities,” said Lester Pines, a liberal attorney who has represented Evers in the past. “If someone wants to litigate that in the context of this pandemic, they are free to do so. But that is not what the Supreme Court said.”
Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, said it could be argued that if Palm can’t issue a stay-at-home order, then neither can locals.
“Simply cutting and pasting a statewide order is going to be looked at with a great deal of suspicion,” Esenberg said. “You have to do something that is more directly targeted and narrowly tailored. (But) you won’t know for sure until you’ve got a court decision.”
Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, blamed the Supreme Court for creating confusion.
“We said all along there would be chaos if the Supreme Court tossed the governor’s plan and didn’t provide any clear direction, and that’s exactly what we have,” she said.
As of Friday, Wisconsin had seen 11,685 cases of COVID-19 and 445 deaths, according to the DHS.
Sgt. Brandon Berg pulled a respiratory mask over his face and suited up within seconds Friday, a new routine while he helps in communities across Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s most recent stop was Krueger Park in Beloit, where the soldiers partnered with local officials, the Beloit Health System and Rock County Public Health Department staff to administer free COVID-19 tests.
“That’s why we serve,” said Berg, an Oconomowoc native. “Being able to reach out and make a difference means the world to us. We’re all taking the initiative, and the morale is very high.”
Testing also was offered across town at Telfer Park and continues through Friday, May 22.
Sarah Millard, the city of Beloit’s spokeswoman, said about 600 people were tested Friday. About 191 were tested at Krueger Park, the remaining 409 at Telfer Park. Millard said it will take at least five days for test results to come back.
Berg said going to bat against the coronavirus has felt like the moment he and his fellow soldiers have been training for, with citizen safety and vital outreach at the core of their mission.
Joseph Murray Jr., testing site coordinator and deputy chief at the Beloit Fire Department, said the joint effort is important, especially for Beloit’s Hispanic and black communities.
Beloit city officials have said Hispanic residents are getting sick from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate compared to other races and ethnic groups. Nearly half of Rock County’s confirmed cases are present in Hispanic or Latino individuals—a group that makes up 9% of the county’s population.
“I’m glad they came down to do this and get the testing done. It’s definitely needed,” Murray said. “We want to make sure we test the people that are symptomatic, that haven’t been tested, that have been exposed.”
Rock County on Friday reported having 406 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is up from 393 reported Thursday.
There have been 14 COVID-19-related deaths in the county, and 20 patients are hospitalized with the disease as of Friday morning.
Beloit resident Christina Lynch was among the residents who waited in a long line of cars to get tested Friday.
Lynch, who has been working throughout the pandemic, said the free test brought peace of mind for her and her children. She wanted to get tested as a precaution because she said she and her son are more prone to getting sick.
“I’m glad that they’re finally offering the testing,” Lynch said while waiting her turn. “Everyone they can help, the more the better, as long as they stay safe.”
Maj. Shawn Murphy said the National Guard soldiers wore a mix of either medical gowns or civilian clothing in an effort to be approachable. All had protective masks over their faces.
Murphy said his soldiers have been excited to serve communities across the state.
“We’re proud of what we do,” Murphy said. “We live here, we work here, we serve here, and we’re just like every other civilian.”
National Guard specialist Emily Mrazek, who is from Sussex, said she began helping out at testing sites in March. It has helped ease her mind about how her own family is doing at home.
“We’re just happy to help the people; it feels good,” Mrazek said.
She said her squad is a close-knit group and was eager to jump into action and help track the spread of the coronavirus together.
She recalled visiting about 25 areas of the state thus far to offer tests.
“I’m really glad to be here. This is what makes it worth it, to be able to actually help people,” Mrazek said. “It seems like they’re really grateful for it.”
Allen P. Bell
Charlotte V. Ellingson
Ruth Ann Froeber-Simplot