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Public health department to take down site that allowed citizens to report mass gatherings amid COVID-19 pandemic

Public health department to take down site that allowed citizens to report mass gatherings amid COVID-19 pandemic

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After less than a week, Public Health Madison and Dane County plans to take down a website that allowed citizens to report mass gatherings that violated government orders aimed at preventing the spread of the new coronavirus.

The move comes after the website was flooded with spam, according to health department spokeswoman Sarah Mattes, including “people calling us names” and complaining that the effort constituted Big Brother-like government overreach.

Mattes also said the site is no longer needed after Gov. Tony Evers said on Monday he planned to order all nonessential businesses to shut down. When the site went live on Wednesday, bars and restaurants were the only businesses required to close — although they can still do carry-out and delivery — and the state had banned gatherings of more than 10 people.

The site, which is now expected to be down by Tuesday, resulted in more than 60 reports tagged for follow-up by public health officials. Mattes said places that raised concerns among the public included gyms and nail and hair salons. Evers last week ordered salons closed by 5 p.m. last Friday.

“There really haven’t been that many complaints about bars and restaurants not following the rules,” Mattes said, possibly because they knew if they remained open it could put their liquor licenses at risk of revocation.

Mattes said the department’s plan had been to notify police of any gatherings that continued despite being told to stop. She did not know whether officials had contacted police in any such cases. Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said his agency hasn’t received any complaints about gatherings in violation of the state orders, either from the health department or from the public.

Dane County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Elise Schaffer said deputies responded to two complaints about two bars in Cambridge allegedly violating the order to close, “but it was just customers getting carry-out orders.”

Under state law, violation of the public health orders is punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $250 fine or both.

Donald Downs, a UW-Madison professor emeritus of political science and expert in civil liberties, said the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed governments leeway to handle major threats and Americans have long been able to tell government about suspected illegal or dangerous activity.

Still, Downs said, when it comes to programs such as the public health department’s, the “clear preference is for the state to openly and repeatedly declare why such gatherings are bad.”

“Holding people accountable to fines or other penalties in my view is preferable to encouraging spying or informing on people,” he said, and programs such the health department’s should be limited in terms how long they are active and how necessary they are under the circumstances.


Photos: A look at how the novel coronavirus is affecting Wisconsin

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