Janesville police say they are taking action to close businesses that continue to operate despite not clearly meeting exemptions in Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” orders, which aim to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Deputy Police Chief Terry Sheridan said police are using a new set of guidelines to handle tips about businesses that are operating even though they are not classified as “essential” under the governor’s orders.
Wednesday, Sheridan said police were visiting businesses on a “complaint basis,” and the department planned Wednesday to enforce shutdowns of at least two: tobacco and vape shop Smoker’s World and craft store Hobby Lobby.
Sheridan said the two businesses are being told to close temporarily because they don’t appear to meet the “Safer at Home” exemptions.
“We’ve got people reporting, whether it’s individuals or businesses, there are people who aren’t following the governor’s orders,” he said. “So we have been checking in, and we just put out direction … to the officers on that. It can become sometimes a bit confusing as to what exactly is an essential business.”
The move comes a day after Rock County health officials reported the county’s first confirmed COVID-19 death.
Most grocers, gas stations, health care facilities and banking institutions, among a few other businesses, have been deemed essential to maintaining a functioning economy during the health crisis.
Restaurants that can accommodate carryout service or deliveries so far have been allowed to operate.
Some taverns have manufactured “curbside pickup” arrangements. According to one social media post, an area tavern over the weekend held a “Sunday Fun Day” special on bloody Mary mixed drinks with companion bottles of vodka and meat-and-cheese skewers.
But the rules on which businesses are essential during the coronavirus crisis are subject to the nuts and bolts of the governor’s Essential Business Declaration, a state decree that spells out temporary exemptions and special conditions for business operations.
Sheridan said Hobby Lobby was being shut down after the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. issued a decision that the retailer was considered nonessential.
The governor has temporarily given the state’s economic development agency the power to decide a given business’ status as essential or nonessential.
The agency reported late last month that it had been flooded with thousands of calls from businesses inquiring about their status.
Sheridan indicated Smoker’s World was classified as nonessential and told to close temporarily under a city legal decision that the shop sells mainly tobacco and smoking products and only a small selection of food.
A reporter observed that Smoker’s World appeared to be closed Wednesday afternoon. Calls to the store went unanswered, and the store did not immediately return a message from The Gazette seeking comment.
Hobby Lobby also appeared to be closed Wednesday.
Sheridan said the police department and the city attorney’s office are working together to determine whether businesses under review meet exemptions to the state orders.
City Attorney Wald Klimczyk said police have the legal authority to order a business to close. He said his office’s responsibility is to offer guidance and make legal recommendations on whether a business is essential or nonessential.
Klimczyk said Janesville fabric seller Joann Fabric is allowed to remain open. He said police and city officials determined the store is considered essential because it sells work-from-home items, foam bedding and other products used for health and wellness, sewing supplies and fabric.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. also has classified Joann Fabric as essential.
Sheridan said police and city officials aim to make decisions on complaints about businesses “no later than 48 hours” after receiving them.
“There are health implications,” he said. “So we’re trying to do it fairly quickly to come up with a determination on whether or not they can remain open or not and get that put into place if we need to close them.”
Business owners can face fines or arrest for failing or refusing to comply, Sheridan said.
Businesses can contest an order to close by contacting the WEDC, but police and the city will not wait for the agency’s decision when they close a business, he said.
Some businesses that are categorized as food sellers have drawn complaints, Sheridan said—not because they remain open but because they’re apparently drawing crowds that are illegal under the temporary ban on public gatherings.
Sheridan said one drive-up ice cream shop, Frostie Freeze, is under the microscope because of reports that crowds have congregated there.
“Maybe we somehow come up with keeping the (physical) separation in place so we don’t spread this stuff around just because somebody wanted to go get an ice cream cone,” Sheridan said.
Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville and its lead government relations official, believes enough time has passed for local authorities to make decisions on a decree that initially allowed “a lot of individual discretion.”
“Businesses were allowed to read the order and make their own decision about whether or not to stay open. Now that we’ve been living under the order for a bit, things have have become standardized across communities,” Cunningham said. “It took a week or so, but the gray area on who should and shouldn’t be open is disappearing.”