Residents voice concerns over amendment giving county health officer enforcement powers

Residents voice concerns over amendment giving county health officer enforcement powers

Sophia Voight, Opinion Editor and Writer

A proposed ordinance that would give the Winnebago County health officer power to enforce measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases was met with opposition from the public at the County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of people that are very, very unhappy with this amendment,” Oshkosh resident Grant Stettler said during the Zoom meeting. “Not one person should yield that much power and there’s a lot of concern out there.”

The County Board was originally set to vote on the ordinance amendment Tuesday, but officials replaced it with a presentation after pushback from county residents who called for more opportunities for public input.

The proposed amendment to the County Health Officer code would give the health officer power to issue orders “to control outbreaks, epidemics or pandemics,” according to the proposal.

This new ordinance will give the County Health Officer authority to close schools, forbid public gatherings and quarantine and disinfect people or buildings.

Appleton resident Rachael Cabral Guevara, who is running for the 55th Assembly District seat that includes part of Winnebago County, said she has heard a lot of concerns while campaigning about the overpower the health officer will have under this ordinance.

“The overall feel that I’ve gotten is that folks over and over are saying ‘how can an individual who hasn’t been elected be held accountable for the resolution that is at stake here?’” she said.

Neenah resident Marcia Willming said she is scared that this ordinance will give the health officer too much power.

“I find this very concerning that the county would let one person ultimately decide to close schools, churches, places of employment, public and private gatherings,” she said. “I feel this amendment could further cripple both small and large businesses within Winnebago County.”

Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris said the sole authority of the county health officer to issue orders that prevent and control the spread of communicable diseases was already determined in the state legislature.

The only reason for the current proposed amendment is because the code currently doesn’t grant the health officer power to enforce orders; it only allows the officer to give recommendations, Harris said.

“So, the primary complaints about this, ‘why so much power in one person?’ That all comes from the state,” he said. “If you have any objection to that you need to talk to the state legislature.”

Winnebago County Health Officer Doug Gieryn said in order for the county to enforce local health orders, they needed to reference the state statute in our ordinance.

“We’re not adding any additional powers,” Gieryn said. “We’re not doing anything that’s necessarily new or that hasn’t been in place for many decades.”

Winnebago County resident, Dalton Gregerson, claimed this proposal is unlawfully extending power like the state’s Safer at Home order did.

“The entire thing is insane,” Gregerson said. “It prevents no future officer from taking advantage of the power to control everyone.”

Winnebago County Republican Party Chairman Ed Hudak said people are confused as to how the county will have the power to enforce shutdowns after the state Supreme Court overruled the Safer at Home order.

Hudak added that this ordinance seems like a way to get around the absence of the state-wide shutdown of businesses and public gatherings.

Gieryn said the state government pushed the management of the COVID-19 outbreak to the local level after the Safer at Home order was struck down.

“We received opinions from the Wisconsin Counties Association and from the Wisconsin attorney general, that we need to have the ability to enforce orders locally and not rely on state statute alone,” he said.

Gieryn said the ability of a county health officer to issue shutdown orders may seem like a surprising amount of power because it has rarely been exercised before the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s rare that we need to actually use those powers,” he said. “In most instances, we have voluntary compliance, and orders issued are usually at the most minimally restrictive level possible.”

Gieryn said any future order to control the spread of a disease would be as narrow as possible and only address specific situations.

“Our goal is to be the least restrictive as possible in order to adequately protect the public’s health,” he said.

The County Board will vote on the ordinance at a later date. To give your opinion on the proposal, contact your county board supervisor at; read the complete proposed amendment here.