, , ,

Conservative Group Asks Court To Block Dane County Order On Private Gatherings

WILL Argues Banning Private Gatherings On Thanksgiving Will Harm Families' Mental Health

Wisconsin Supreme Court
Shamane Mills/WPR

A conservative advocacy group is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block Dane County’s public health order banning indoor gatherings of any size, saying the order is unreasonable, unlawful and unconstitutional.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) filed the lawsuit on behalf of Dane County residents who say the order will harm their families, negatively affect their mental health and hurt some businesses’ bottom lines.

The order being challenged is the most aggressive issued yet by Janel Heinrich, the health officer for Public Health Madison and Dane County. It comes as the county and the state are struggling with a COVID-19 surge that has severely strained hospitals, some of which are running out of beds and staff.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

But WILL argues Henrich’s order is too broad to be issued without a vote by elected members of the Madison Common Council or the Dane County Board, and too intrusive to be allowed by the Wisconsin Constitution.

“Under Dane County’s order, people can gather with their coworkers at work, but cannot visit their close relatives in their private homes,” reads WILL’s legal brief. “Such an order is patently unreasonable and unlawful.”

While it’s unclear how quickly the court might respond to the petition, WILL’s brief asks for an immediate ruling to block the order, partly because it will prevent people from legally observing Thanksgiving with family members who don’t live in their homes.

That ban, WILL argues, unfairly punishes some people and some businesses while not affecting others.

“The Dane County Health Department cannot reasonably allow people to shop on Black Friday, while prohibiting them from seeing their loved ones, in their own homes, on Thursday,” reads the lawsuit.

Plaintiffs in the case include Jeffrey Becker, a Verona resident and father of four kids who said the order will lead to feelings of isolation in his children and harm their mental health. They also include Andrea Klein of Stoughton who said she had planned to host a small Thanksgiving with her parents, uncle and brother, all of whom live near her in Dane County.

The other plaintiff is Jason Orkowski, who owns a Fitchburg gymnastics center called Gymfinity. Orkowski said Dane County’s order will cost his business $40,000.

The lawsuit is the latest of several filed by WILL that challenge state and local public health orders.

The group successfully blocked an earlier Dane County order that would have mandated virtual instruction for children in grades three to 12. That ruling cleared the way for private schools in Dane County to resume in-person instruction.

In a phone interview Monday, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the lawsuits had hurt efforts to respond to COVID-19.

“We’re in the place we are right now with this pandemic to a large extent because of groups like this fighting and suing throughout the pandemic to have our orders overturned,” Parisi said. “I’d like to see groups like this spend a few minutes in an ICU and witness the suffering and devastation that this virus has wrought to our community and to our state.”

Parisi said the reason the county issued its latest restriction on gatherings is because contact tracing has shown that private gatherings, even among friends, have driven the spread of COVID-19.

“Our hospitals are full and our health care providers are overwhelmed,” Parisi said. “And so the portion of this order that restricts gatherings for 30 days is incredibly important to our efforts to try to bring some relief to our hospitals.”

In addition to WILL’s Dane County lawsuits, the group filed a lawsuit last week to try to stop Racine from switching to virtual instruction.

WILL also filed a lawsuit in August challenging the emergency orders Gov. Tony Evers used to issue Wisconsin’s statewide mask mandate. While it lost at the lower court level in that case, WILL joined oral arguments last week in a second lawsuit that seeks to overturn the governor’s emergency declarations.

WILL also filed a lawsuit challenging the emergency orders Gov. Tony Evers used to issue Wisconsin’s statewide mask mandate. While it lost at the lower court level, WILL joined oral arguments in the Supreme Court last week in a second lawsuit that seeks to overturn those orders.