With State Mandate Overturned, EauClaire County Steps in With Anti-COVID Order

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

Members of the Wisconsin National Guard help with COVID-19 testing Sunday, May 10, in Eau Claire.
Members of the Wisconsin National Guard help with COVID-19 testing Sunday, May 10, in Eau Claire.

Less than 24 hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide “Safer at Home” order, the Eau Claire City-County Health Department has issued its own order aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

The order, announced Thursday afternoon, went into effect immediately and will last for two weeks, expiring at 11:59pm on May 28. According to state law, health departments “may do what is reasonable and necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease” including forbidding “public gatherings when deemed necessary to control outbreaks or epidemics.”

Later on Thursday, Dunn County authorities issued a similar order (which can be viewed here).

“What that meant is we found ourselves in the middle of a worldwide pandemic without guidance from the state and expectations that we will deal with that on a local level with fewer tools in our toolbox.” –Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters, on the outcome of the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling Wednesday

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state Legislature’s Republican leaders, who had sued to overturn the Democratic governor’s order, arguing his administration had exceed its legal authority by extending the order without legislative input. While Evers and GOP lawmakers are expected to meet to develop a compromise statewide policy, until they do so the burden of preventing the pandemic’s spread has fallen to local health departments.

At a press briefing Thursday afternoon, Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters said local leaders were forced to act quickly after the Supreme Court ruling. “What that meant is we found ourselves in the middle of a worldwide pandemic without guidance from the state and expectations that we will deal with that on a local level with fewer tools in our toolbox,” he said.

Lieske Giese, director of the health department, said the new order was developed in cooperation with the cities of Altoona and Eau Claire, Eau Claire County, and other partners.

“We know that our community members, business owners, neighbors, and friends want to stay safe, and keep one another healthy,” she said. “We really view all of our businesses and community members as partners in this effort to slow the spread of disease in Eau Claire County.”

Unlike the governor’s emergency order, which outlined specific types of businesses and facilities and whether or not they could operate and in what ways, the Eau Claire County order is based upon mitigating risk, Giese said. It mandates specific physical distancing requirements and minimum square footage for individuals inside a business. “If (businesses) can meet the requirements in the order they are allowed to be open,” she said. (You can read the full order here.)

Some details of the order include:

  • Individuals are strongly encouraged to stay at home or their place of residence, minimize travel outside of the county, and keep their number of connections small.
  • Restrictions for both public spaces and public buildings, such as physical distancing and limitations on the number of people present at one time.
  • Mass gatherings of more than 10 people are not permitted.
  • Use of the WEDC guidance for business reopening.
  • Elderly and vulnerable people are encouraged to take additional precautions.
  • Under this order, all businesses, facilities, playgrounds, campgrounds, and other amenities may open and operate unless they are unable to meet and maintain the safety and protection measures outlined in the order.
  • All people are strongly encouraged to continue maintaining physical distancing, good hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning high-touch surfaces, not shaking hands, and follow other WI DHS and CDC recommendations.

While the order is enforceable by law, Giese said she’d prefer to educate the public rather than see them prosecuted. “Our goal is not enforcement,” she said at a media briefing. “Our goal is prevention of disease spread that is so rapid that we can’t control it.”

As of Thursday, Giese said, there were 65 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in the county, and 40 of those individuals had been released from isolation. Statewide, there have been 11,275 positive cases and 434 deaths.

Whatever policies are in place, Giese said, the virus will continue to spread because of its highly contagious nature. “I expect that no matter what the order is, we will have an increase in the number of cases,” she said.