The state’s Safer at Home order that extended restrictions on business operations and people’s gathering and mobility until May 26 has some sheriffs grappling with how to enforce the order when they consider it unconstitutional, too detrimental to businesses, or public health’s responsibility to enforce, not theirs.
Some are walking a line between disagreeing with the extent of the order while understanding the need for social distancing and flattening the curve of COVID-19’s spread.
One of the first in the state to put it in writing publicly was Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, who in a long Facebook posting on the county sheriff’s page said the governor and Wisconsin Department of Health Services have the right to enforce rules to protect the public during a health crisis but “state law does not have the power to supersede or suspend the Constitutional rights of American citizens.”
“I urge the Wisconsin DHS to develop a workable plan that balances the safety of our citizens while at the same time acknowledging the fact that there is a way for business to operate even during the current health situation,” he said.
Schmaling added, “The overreaching measures taken by State government will have dire lifetime consequences for businesses, homeowners, and families. I took an oath to uphold the constitutional rights of our citizens and I can not in good faith participate in the destruction of Racine County businesses or interfere in the freedoms granted to all of us by our Constitution.”
He said it is up to the state and local health departments to enforce the rules.
Some local sheriffs have intimated similar disagreements with the state’s Safer at Home extension.
Last week Washburn County Sheriff Dennis Stuart said in a posting on his personal Facebook page that he was concerned about the extended Safer at Home order limiting freedom, the affect of the order on the local economy, and the need to “stand up as one.”
At about the same time, the Spooner Advocate asked Stuart about the department’s position on the order, whether deputies are seeing violations and whether they are enforcing the order, whether drivers are asked where they are going when they are stopped, and whether the department is seeing more domestic abuse calls or other types of calls since the original Safer at Home went into effect.
Here is his response:
“COVID 19 is an issue that has impacted all members of our community, young and old alike in some way or another. We understand much of the frustration and anxiety individuals are feeling surrounding the pandemic and different aspects of the “Safer at Home Order.” We also realize this has affected everyone a bit differently and individual views on it differ greatly. With that being said, we don’t know to what extent each of your lives have been impacted since it may look different for each of us.
“Our approach has been and will continue to be to help educate, help clarify questions to the Order, consult with the proper governing authority, and evaluate each complaint on a case-by-case basis. To date, Washburn County Law Enforcement have received numerous calls from individuals with questions and we have received four formal complaints regarding possible violations, each complaint was investigated, and to date, no citations have been issued, nor have there been any referrals made to the District Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution.
“All members of Washburn County Law Enforcement have taken an oath and are sworn to uphold the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions and to enforce federal, state, and local laws. To uphold the oath means that we will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties to the best of our abilities. As always, we will be continuing to do this.
“Washburn County Sheriff’s Office is still enforcing the law and still making arrests and investigating drug and theft cases. As you can guess none of these crimes have gone away with the Order. When a vehicle is stopped however, we do not ask where you are traveling to or from unless there is a reason to do so. We currently have not seen an increase in Domestic Violence cases within the county. Our deputies are taking precautionary steps when dealing with the public face to face to keep them and our community safe.
“Last week I posted something on social media on my personal page. It was poorly written, and it didn’t get across my main focus: I believe businesses need to reopen for the better good of our local community. I meant no disrespect to the Governor, his Office or the Order he issued. I wrote it, I own it and I apologize to the citizens of Washburn County for making it sound like I was suggesting a revolt.
“Stay healthy, keep in contact with those in your life who may be vulnerable during this time, and help if you can to get them resources they may need. One thing we know for sure, Washburn County is a strong community and we will get through this together.
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald is part of the county’s COVID-19 Response Team, and in a statement from him on April 22, he said the team is looking for a way to keep everyone safe while moving the communities forward.
“There may be a better way to safely move ahead than what is currently in place,” he said. “Our team is working with the state and the legislature to see what our options may be. We want businesses to be able to open back up, but we need a plan to ensure the safety of everyone in Barron County.
“It is our hope that the legislation and/or the courts address the pending lawsuits regarding the constitutionality of the order and give us some direction. We are working with our Corporation Council to determine the liability to the county if we enforce or fail to enforce it,” he said.
Fitzgerald asked for the public’s support of each other and the team, and said smart people are working on it and trying to do the best for both the health and the economy in the county.
“As Sheriff,” he said, “I will make the determination if any enforcement action will be taken as a result of this order. I take the citizen’s rights in Barron County very seriously and I hold the safety of each of you and your loved ones very high.”
Meanwhile, he asked the public to continue with social distancing and hand washing as the team looks for further clarification and “a better plan to safely re-open Barron County and all the businesses that make us who we are.”
A couple of members of the Burnett County Sheriff’s Office are part of the county’s COVID-19 Response Team, and a statement from the team posted on the sheriff’s office Facebook page on April 22 noted the governor’s Badger Bounce Back program provides “direction and criteria for reopening businesses, allowing social gatherings, and returning to our now coveted, normal life.”
“While many of us have differing thoughts regarding when it is safe to reopen businesses and reconvene our social gatherings, we all want to make sure it is done in a safe manner for everyone,” the team said. “Therefore, the Burnett County COVID-19 Response Team will continue working closely with the Burnett County Board of Supervisors as we lay out a plan for the reopening of local commerce as soon as possible.
“Our County Board knows the impacts that this pandemic has had on our community and they are eager to see our community flourish once again,” the statement said.
Polk County Sheriff Brent Waak issued the following statement on Monday, April 21, on the sheriff’s department’s Facebook page:
“I want to take this opportunity to explain to the residents of Polk County my position on the enforcement of the Safer at Home order. Since the Covid-19 Pandemic started over a month ago, I chose to take a common sense approach to enforcing the order. I watched our community self-regulate and adapt to the order. By utilizing social distancing and sanitation guidelines, our community has stayed healthy. I didn’t enforce travel restrictions or prohibit religious freedoms. I respected our fundamental rights.
“I believe the extension of the safer at home order that was set to expire on April 24, 2020 is an over-reach of the State Government. As your Sheriff, I have taken an Oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of Wisconsin. I have always respected the civil liberties of the citizens of Polk County.
“I believe that most Polk County businesses can safely operate with some protective measures in place such as social distancing and protective equipment for staff / patrons. I believe that our business community can be innovative and reopen safely with everyone’s health in mind.
“I will work with our local Public Health Officials to make sure our community continues to stay healthy and expect that we can safely start to reopen our economy. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office will work hard to protect our citizens from criminals and keep our community safe while respecting everyone’s constitutional rights.”
On the next day, April 22, a joint statement from the sheriff’s office and Polk County Health Department read: “The Polk County Health Department and Sheriff’s Office top priority is ensuring the health and safety of the residents of Polk County. This includes not only the physical health, but mental, emotional and social health as well. We understand that in order to protect our physical health, the Safer at Home Order was necessary. We also understand how the Safer at Home Order has impacted our other areas of health. We share your desire to return to normal so that we can be healthy in all areas.”
The statement went on to say that they would work together to create an environment that prioritizes the public’s health and works with the businesses “within the parameters” of the order. They said will “proactively engage” businesses to support a “gradual return to normal while prioritizing the public’s health,” which they said is best done by social distancing, other health recommendations, and “adhering” to the order.
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