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Wisconsin Spotlight | Oct. 19, 2020

MADISON — Winnebago County is once again on the verge of giving enormous power to its unelected health bureaucrat as fear spreads faster than COVID-19.

The Winnebago County Board of Health last week approved a proposal that would allow county Health Officer Doug Gieryn the authority to issue orders ostensibly to check the spread of communicable diseases — e.g. COVID-19.

Now, the County Board of Supervisors is slated to take up the amendment at its meeting Tuesday. 

Violators could face fines of as much as $500 per infraction, and the health department could suspend the licence of any business registered with the agency.

Perhaps more troubling is the “special inspection warrant” that gives a health officer the authority to enter private properties.

Hundreds turned out this past summer to voice their opposition to a similar proposal, forcing the Board of Supervisors to drop the measure from its agenda.

The amendment comes with a few Wisconsin Counties Association tweaks. State Rep. Michael Schraa worries a constant barrage of fear from the Evers administration, local health officials and a fear-mongering mainstream media may overtake supervisors’ nerve to stand against overreaching government this time.

As of Friday, Winnebago County’s health department reported 5,921 positive cases of COVID-19 since March, up 185 cases from the previous day. The county had reported 41 total COVID-related deaths, no increase from the day before. There were 38,093 negative tests over the period.

“I think it will pass. I think they’ve scared enough county board members,” Schraa, an Oshkosh Republican, said. “A majority of the board members are in the age range that’s most (vulnerable) to COVID-19.”

That’s why, Schraa said, it’s so important Winnebago County citizens turn out by the hundreds again to voice their objections to the power grab.

The proposed amendment draws from state statue that has come under fire amid the pandemic and the government abuses that have accompanied it. It allows the health officer to “take measures to prevent, suppress, and control COVID-19 in Winnebago County Health Department’s jurisdiction, coupled with authorizing the Winnebago County Health Officer, his/her designees, and law enforcement to issue penalties for violating state and local laws designed to suppress communicable diseases, will help contain the impact of COVID-19 in Winnebago County.”

The open-ended nature of the language should concern anyone who values civil liberties.

Gieryn would have to seek approval from the board before issuing any order, but supervisors in counties with such orders have often deferred to their health “experts” on COVID-19 response measures.

The health officer would be given the power to issue orders “guarding against the introduction of any communicable disease into his or her jurisdiction.” He would have the power to issue orders of “quarantine and disinfection of persons, localities and things infected or suspected of being infected by a communicable disease and for the sanitary care of schools, public buildings, and other places.”

Schraa said Winnebago County has lived through the impacts of the Evers administration’s lockdowns, when businesses ratted out their competitors suspected of violating the stay-at-home orders. He doesn’t want to to see more of the same coming from the local government.

“Our hospitality industry already has been devastated,” the lawmaker said. “We all have a vested interest in keeping our employees and customers safe or people aren’t going to go to our businesses and we won’t have employees.”

Schraa urged Winnebago County residents to attend the County Board meeting via video conference, beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Find the Zoom link and meeting information here.

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