A conservative legal group is challenging a recent public health emergency order from Public Health Madison and Dane County, seeking to overturn its increased regulations of in-door gatherings and sports activities.
This comes as hospitals across the state are urging residents to avoid gatherings for the coming holiday season, warning that hospitals are running out of space.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to block Dane County’s public health order banning indoor gatherings.
The conservative legal group is filing on behalf of a Fitchburg gymnastics business and two Dane County parents, whose children participate in youth hockey and soccer leagues.
The suit argues the order from Public Health Madison Dane County, which banned indoor gatherings last week, overstepped its authority. It claims that authority only lies with the Dane County Board and Madison Common Council.
“The health department can encourage people to stay home, it can suggest that people stay home but it can’t dictate what people do in their home,” says Luke Berg, a Deputy Counsel for WILL. He also says the new regulations, which have stricter rules on indoor gatherings, unfairly target gyms and indoor sports.
“The ban on indoor gatherings in any private home and the ban on all indoor sports activities are patently unreasonable and unlawful,” Berg says.
The public health order, announced last Tuesday, prohibits any indoor gatherings of people not living in the same household, citing increased local transmission as a result of gatherings.
Today, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi blasted the lawsuit and the group bringing it, writing;
“Wisconsin is in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in our state’s history because groups like this fought masks and social distancing for months, sowing chaos that’s now resulted in overflowing hospitals.”
Marci Paulsen, assistant city attorney for the city of Madison, says that local statutes give the health department the authority to do what is “reasonable and necessary” to combat the spread of the virus.
“The whole point of this order is because the virus is spreading rapidly throughout our county, and we’re making attempts to slow the spread by limiting gatherings,” Paulsen says.
The lawsuit comes as physicians say the growing surge in cases is straining the state’s healthcare system. Dr. Ann Sheehy, Division Head of Hospital Medicine at UW Health, says Madison is seeing four times as many patients with Covid as they did during the peak back in Spring.
“There may come a point where even given all our best efforts, we don’t have enough staff to take care of all the patients who need us,” Sheehy says.
On Sunday, in an open letter to Wisconsin, UW Health implored people to stay home for Thanksgiving, avoid gatherings, and wear masks. Dr. Sheehy says that over 2,000 hospital employees signed the letter within the first 15 hours, a number that has grown close to 3,000 as of recording.
Dr. Sheehy says that, regardless of politics, healthcare workers only want to keep people healthy and safe.
“I hope people realize we have no incentive other than we just want to help people get through this together,” Sheehy says, “and so we hope that our words ring true and that people view us as people in their community that just want to be helpful.”
According to data from John Hopkins University, the national death toll from COVID-19 is approaching 257,000, roughly equivalent to the entire population of the City of Madison.