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Dane County judge sides with public health department on setting COVID-19 restrictions

Dane County judge sides with public health department on setting COVID-19 restrictions

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Saying he would not go along with plaintiffs’ “political goal,” a Dane County judge on Monday refused to issue a temporary injunction blocking local public health officials from issuing orders aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Circuit Judge Jacob Frost said state statutes clearly gave Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, the authority to issue an order on Jan. 12 that set outdoor gathering limits at 50 people, limited most businesses to 50% capacity and effectively barred a number of high school sports.

The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which brought the suit, said it would appeal.

Three more orders have taken effect since the suit was filed, and the current one, Emergency Order No. 15, continued to loosen COVID-19 restrictions, including setting no limits on outdoor gatherings and allowing team sports to go ahead indoors and outdoors as long as no more than 350 people are gathered indoors. A new order goes into effect Wednesday that will even further loosen restrictions on gatherings and restaurants, bars and other businesses.

“We are confident that our public health orders have been legal under state statute and are pleased that the judge agreed today,” Public Health said in a statement. “Our orders have saved lives and been an important tool to keep people healthy and safe during this pandemic.”

WILL brought the suit in January on behalf of two Dane County parents of children involved in team sports, and later added as a plaintiff an Oregon dance studio that drew a 119-count complaint from the public health department for holding a performance of “The Nutcracker.”

“We filed this lawsuit because an unelected health officer is unilaterally issuing sweeping restrictions without any express sanction from local elected officials,” WILL deputy counsel Luke Berg said in a statement. “We are disappointed by this decision and plan to appeal.”

The Dane County suit was WILL’s second shot at invalidating the county’s ability to set coronavirus-related restrictions. In December, it lost a 4-3 decision before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn joining three liberal members of the court in ruling the suit should have been filed in circuit court first.

In his 25-page decision, Frost said the plaintiffs failed to show their arguments would ultimately prevail in court — one of the standards for issuing a temporary injunction.

“The statutes broadly authorize and mandate that Ms. Heinrich take all measures necessary to slow the spread of this virus,” Frost writes. “I will not call an apple an orange, a dog a cat, up down or left right. Neither will I ignore that the Legislature’s chosen language gives Ms. Heinrich great power to fight communicable disease.”

6 lives disrupted: How COVID-19 changed Madison

The torrent of disruption to daily life over the past year has been inescapable.

Calendar squares filled with weddings and events cleared. Vacations vanished. Schools shuttered and hand sanitizer was in short supply. We learned new words, like social distancing, herd immunity and doomscrolling. 

COVID-19 affected every person, every family. It's taken nearly 6,500 Wisconsinites from us, including 278 in Dane County.

Here are six stories from people whose lives and jobs changed over the past year.

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“Reporting the death counts out day after day was draining,” she said. “It felt like I was announcing a funeral every day.”

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"I was getting my work done from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day," she said.

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Rev. Marcus Allen knew what bringing everyone together could do for their spiritual and mental health. But each time he considered reopening the church, COVID-19 cases surged.

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"We’re used to taking whatever comes through the door," said nurse Maria Hanson, who started journaling about the pandemic soon after treating the patient.

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"It’s a risk vs. reward thing and I risk my life to save others," said Brandon Jones, who always worried about bringing the virus home to his wife and two kids.

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“Usually a funeral is a major step in understanding that a life was lived and the person is now gone,” he said. “If families don’t get that, it’s just really hard.”

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