Emergency declarations and social distancing measures aimed at slowing spread of the coronavirus outbreak have been implemented without much protest from the general public. Most people understand there’s no time to waste in this battle, especially at this early juncture.
We have supported these unprecedented restrictions however damaging they might be to the nation’s economy in the short term. The closure of local restaurants and bars will trigger a wave of layoffs, and yet most people appreciate the need for closures. The hope is to lower the death toll and buy time until a vaccine is ready.
Nevertheless, it’s healthy to question how far society is willing to go to ensure public safety and security at the expense of democratic norms and civil liberties.
Only a month or so ago, these measures would have been inconceivable:
The state government ordering limits on gatherings, including the temporary closure of restaurants, which local police have said they will enforce through patrols.
Rock County government declaring an emergency that would allow it to bypass the county board to make certain decisions.
Both moves are justified so long as the restrictions don’t deviate from their original purpose. The public must watch for any attempt to blur the lines between the emergency and unrelated political agendas. After all, it’s difficult enough in normal times to hold government accountable and maintain transparency.
To his credit, County Administrator Josh Smith is aware of the limitations of the emergency declaration and, in response to a Gazette inquiry, affirmed his interest in maintaining transparency and accountability to the extent possible during this emergency.
For one, his administration cannot arbitrarily change county ordinances. Any ordinance changes would still need board approval, he said. The declaration would allow his administration to make other decisions, however, such as its recent purchase of $40,000 in additional software licenses to allow more staff members to work remotely. We agree this is the type of decision that is appropriate in the current emergency.
Perhaps more concerning is the prospect of the county board canceling meetings because of restrictions on gatherings. But Smith does have a solution. The board plans to hold its next meeting as a teleconference and provide the public and media call-in access to the meeting, he said.
“We are in new and abrupt territory here, so you will have to forgive our stumbles, but I can say that all our conversations about this have included discussions of how we comply with the open meetings law and be transparent about what we are doing in these unprecedented times,” Smith said.
The Legislature is considering a similar teleconference setup. Any effort to maintain the semblance of democratic norms is welcome.
Finally, Smith noted the emergency declaration lasts only 60 days. For it to continue, the board would have to extend it, which will provide an opportunity for the public to consider whether it’s still necessary.
We encourage the public to continually ask whether these unprecedented restrictions are appropriate. For the moment, there’s little doubt they’re needed given the alternative would be to unleash a deadly contagion on the wider population. But once the threat recedes, so, too, must these extraordinary measures.