County Board extends emergency order until July 21
Virtual meetings to continue
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
MERRILL – Lincoln County’s emergency order implemented last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place until July 21.
The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors during its Tuesday, May 18 meeting voted 16 to 4 to approve a resolution extending the order, set to expire on Wednesday, May 19, by 60 days.
The order, which suspends county rules and allows the board and committees to meet virtually, was ratified by the board in April 2020 and extended by 120 days in July 2020. In Oct. 2020, the board voted to extend the order to May 2021.
The extensions of the order have drawn criticism from some board members, who have opined that the order should not be extended solely to continue to allow for virtual meetings, and that an ordinance should be enacted for that specific purpose.
Other board members have expressed support for the extensions, pointing to the protection of Supervisors’ health and noting that the process of enacting a teleconferencing ordinance could potentially be complicated.
When the board reached the emergency order item on the meeting’s agenda, discourse about the use of face coverings arose, although they are not mentioned in the resolution.
Supervisors mulled the resolution during a roughly 40-minute discussion, during which Board Chair Kevin Koth noted that after the Administrative and Legislative (A&L) Committee met and approved the resolution, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new mask wearing guidelines for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and the resolution’s language did not reflect the updated recommendations.
Lincoln County Health Department Director Shelley Hersil provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in the county.
Disease has “gone down” Lincoln County, with only four COVID-19 cases reported in the week prior to the meeting, Hersil said. An average of ten to 13 cases per week had been reported in previous weeks.
36% of Lincoln County residents had been fully vaccinated as of the meeting, Hersil said, adding that she “wish(ed) that number was higher.”
Hersil said the vaccines have been effective against COVID-19 variants and that vaccinated individuals have not been spreading the disease to others, leading to the CDC’s updated guidelines.
Corporation Counsel Karry Johnson spoke to the board from “a legal and a liability perspective.”
“In Wisconsin, under Wisconsin law, employers have a duty to their employees to provide a safe place of employment,” she stated, adding that the county also has a “duty” to provide a safe place for members of the public who enter county buildings.
Johnson noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also requires employers to provide safe workplaces for employees, and that as of the meeting, OSHA’s last updated guidance regarding COVID-19 had been issued in January.
OSHA guidelines do not allow employers to treat vaccinated and unvaccinated employees differently, she added.
“Regardless of whether you’re in favor or against masking or (vaccinating) or whatever, as an employer, we still have a duty to our employees, and we still have a duty to the frequenters who come into the building,” Johnson stated, noting that an extension of the emergency order would be “very valuable from a legal and a liability standpoint” because OSHA may issue updated guidance that reflects the CDC’s within that timeframe.
District 9 Supervisor Don Friske asked Koth what the county is “looking to accomplish” with the emergency order.
“We need to change the ordinance so we can continue having teleconference meetings, and having that ability for people who don’t want to come (to meetings),” Koth said, adding that, without the emergency order or a specific ordinance in place, the county board and committees cannot hold virtual meetings.
Koth also said the order aims to “protect (county) employees.”
District 8 Supervisor Christopher Heller stated his belief that the county “doesn’t need an emergency order to enforce masks in the building.”
“We can have a county policy protecting our employees like any other company can do,” he stated, adding that, regarding virtual meetings, the A&L Committee said in Oct. 2020 it would work to draft an ordinance. The committee has not done so.
Heller said he believed that the ordinance could have been amended to reflect the new CDC guidance.
District 3 Supervisor Elizabeth McCrank expressed her support for extending the emergency order to allow Supervisors and county staff members with health issues to attend meetings remotely, but said she did not support the continued utilization of teleconferencing technology post-pandemic.
“I worry about Zoom, I worry about remote, because this is local governance, and if we start just letting people Zoom for reasons other than health, well, what’s to keep people from Zooming in from Florida, Arizona, Kansas, whatever?” she stated, adding that she wished the A&L Committee would address virtual meetings and that she didn’t want teleconferencing “to come back in this form ever again.”
Speaking from a “policy and HR-driven” perspective, Administrative Coordinator Cate Wylie asked the board to extend the order “for at least 30 days,” pointing to the logistics involved in bringing employees back to work in-person. Among the issues Wylie said must be be addressed were the adjustment of work schedules for employees returning from working virtually, implementing policies regarding virtual meetings and COVID-19 mitigation, and implementing necessary Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations.
Wylie noted that she and Johnson are new in their respective positions, which led to other issues being addressed first as they have continued to acclimate to their posts. Wylie added that the issues she had mentioned previously in the meeting “obviously are (the priority) now.”
District 21 Supervisor Eugene Simon proposed an amendment to the resolution extending the order for 60 days, which he said would allow Wylie and Johnson “enough elbow room to move,” as well as provide the board time to “get everybody on the same page, because we obviously have some different opinions.”
After further discussion, an amendment to the resolution extending county’s emergency order to July 21, 2021 was approved with a 16 to 4 vote.
The amended ordinance also passed with a 16 to 4 vote.
The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors’ next meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 15 at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill.