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Dane County Considers More Pandemic Restrictions As GOP Lawmakers Try To Limit Them

Disagreement Over Republican Pandemic Plan Divides Lawmakers, Local Governments, Schools

Buildings flank the Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol. Angela Major/WPR

A package of wide-ranging COVID-19 proposals by Wisconsin Assembly Republicans is getting pushback from a statewide teachers group and at least one local government whose powers during the pandemic could be curbed.

On Tuesday, GOP lawmakers unveiled a plan that would send teachers back into classrooms, require state workers to go back to the office, and would enact several restrictions on local governments when it comes to limiting crowds and closing businesses.

Ron Martin, who teaches in Eau Claire and is president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said decision-making powers need to be kept at the local level.

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“Our stance is for local control,” Martin said. “A school district needs to be able to make decisions that are in the best interest of students and staff in their particular school district based on guidance from their local health department. There’s legislation being proposed that would be punitive to those school districts. That’s simply wrong.”

In Madison and Dane County, which have some of the strongest pandemic control measures in the state, officials see the proposals as yet another effort to preempt local control, forbidding local rules which are stricter than state law.

“We need the state to set a floor and not a ceiling,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway during a virtual press briefing Wednesday. “We need the state to set basic protections and allow local or county governments to add in additional protections as needed.”

A current order by Public Health Madison and Dane County prohibits all indoor gatherings beyond immediate family. Janel Heinrich, the agency’s health director, said existing restrictions will be extended or new restrictions could be implemented when the current order ends Dec. 16.

Currently, COVID-19 cases are on the decline in Dane County, but both state and local health officials say the effects of Thanksgiving gatherings aren’t apparent yet in the statistics. Deaths from COVID-19 infections acquired before the holiday continue to increase. Dane County had 40 coronavirus deaths in November. Wisconsin reported a record 107 deaths Tuesday.

The GOP Assembly plan would restrict the power of local health officers from ordering the closure of a business unless it applies to all types of businesses. Similarly, a local health officer would be barred from restricting capacity at businesses unless those restrictions apply to all businesses. Bars in Dane County are not allowed to have indoor seating and restaurants are limited to 25 percent capacity indoors.

The Assembly plan would also prohibit state and local health departments from prohibiting gatherings in churches.

In June, the Diocese of Madison threatened to sue Dane County, contending its 50-person limit on church attendance violated religious freedom. Dane County quickly pulled its restrictions on churches.

The Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate have different pandemic proposals, as does Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The Legislature has not met since April when lawmakers lifted a one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance and gave the Legislature’s state budget committee the power to transfer up to $75 million from other state programs to pay for things related to the pandemic.