Conservative attorneys challenge Dane County gatherings ban

Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 6:06 AM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A conservative law firm asked the state Supreme Court on Monday to immediately block Dane County’s ban on indoor gatherings and indoor sports amid the coronavirus pandemic, arguing the order will ruin Thanksgiving and subject young athletes to mental trauma.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a petition with the high court on behalf of two parents of young athletes and an indoor gymnasium. The petition asks the justices to take the case directly without waiting for it to wind through lower courts and issue an immediate injunction blocking the ban.

The firm argues the high court should take the case because many counties have expanded their coronavirus ordinances and the state needs clarification on how much power local elected officials can delegate to health departments. Janel Heinrich, the director of Dane County and the city of Madison’s joint health department, has “egregiously” seized power and is ruling the county and city “by decree,” the firm contends.

The health department’s spokeswoman, Sarah Mattes, said the agency is trying to protect people’s health using science and data and is confident the gatherings order is legal. She declined further comment.

Heinrich issued an order Nov. 17 prohibiting mass gatherings indoors. She amended it Friday to define such gatherings as any gathering of individuals who are not members of the same household. All indoor sports are considered a gathering under the order. Violations carry a $1,000 fine.

Heinrich put out the order as the state continues to grapple with a surge of infections and hospitals are overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

State health officials reported Monday that they had confirmed 3,095 new cases and that the virus had played a role in six more deaths. The seven-day average of positive tests stood at 29.5%. The state has now seen 357,771 cases and 3,011 deaths since the pandemic began in March. A little more than 25,000 people have been infected in Dane County since March; 75 have died.

Nearly 2,000 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Monday afternoon, including about 440 in intensive care, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Health officials fear Thanksgiving celebrations will only exacerbate the spread and have been warning people to avoid gatherings this year.

The firm’s attorneys argue in their petition that the order illegally bans Thanksgiving celebrations, county officials have delegated too much power to Heinrich and the order violates constitutional rights of freedom of assembly. The petition states that plaintiff Andrea Klein, of Fitchburg, recently lost her grandmother and was planning to hold a family Thanksgiving gathering to honor her. She said she’s worried about her family’s mental health if they can’t get together.

The petition warns that banning indoor sports will force gymnastics gymnasiums, indoor soccer fields and hockey rinks out of businesses while allowing all other businesses to continue operating.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved.