Members of the Door County Board of Supervisors, seen here in a screenshot of the video conference meeting on Friday, July 10, 2020, raise their hands to vote against pursuing a face mask order for the county.

The Door County Board of Supervisors on Friday voted not to pursue an order requiring face masks to be worn in the county, despite support for such a measure from leading community organizations, businesses and members of the public who spoke at the meeting.

The informal vote Friday, conducted via a show of hands, determined whether to direct county staff to draft language for a possible ordinance. It came as the number of total cases of COVID-19 in the county rose this week to 53, with nine active cases, and as visitors have poured into the county in recent weeks for Independence Day and summer vacations.

The Door County Medical Center, Destination Door County and the Door County Economic Development Corporation all contacted the board to express support for a mask order.

Beth Resch, a registered nurse, spoke on behalf of the Medical Center at the meeting. Resch said the Medical Center supports requiring masks in indoor public spaces and in outdoor public spaces where physical distancing is not possible.

But supervisors expressed concerns about what the specifics of an order would be; the county’s potential liability with regard to lawsuits; and how – and by whom – an order would be enforced.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend that individuals wear cloth face coverings when they are in public settings where they cannot reliably maintain six feet of distance from others at all times.

Difficulties tracing contacts for positive cases

County public health officer Susan Powers noted the increases in COVID-19 both nationwide and in Wisconsin and said her office has received an increasing number of notifications from other counties and states, reporting individuals who visited Door County and later tested positive.

Powers said those other states and counties and her office are all doing contact-tracing for COVID-19 cases in the same way.

“If, say, someone is diagnosed with COVID today, we call them and we talk to them about when their symptoms began,” Powers said. “You are infectious, contagious, two days before your symptoms began. We go back that far and we ask them questions in a very thorough manner.”

Powers said those questions cover where the individual was and with whom they had close contact for a total of 15 minutes or longer. She said her office will contact the health department for whichever area the individual lives in, if they are not a Door County resident.

The case numbers for Door County include both full-time and seasonal residents but not tourists, Powers said.

The uncertainty regarding how many individuals visiting the county have COVID-19 makes it harder for public officials to make decisions about how to respond to the virus, said supervisor Vinni Chomeau, who represents the town of Gibraltar and the village of Ephraim.

Multiple supervisors said the county needs to improve its communication to visitors with respect to the protective measures it wants them to take. County administrator Ken Pabich said he will work to improve communication through both the county and Destination Door County.

“I think the messaging is the most important part,” Chomeau said. “Whatever we decide in the future, if there is an ordinance, people won’t even know about it unless there is that messaging.”

Supervisors concerned about liability, enforcement

County corporation counsel Grant Thomas told supervisors that exercising local authority to address COVID-19 comes with some legal risks, noting a lawsuit filed in May against the City of Racine over its “Safer at Home” order.

Thomas noted that the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in May to strike down Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide “Safer at Home” order created uncertainty about governments’ authority.

“Until earlier this year, we all felt – local units of government were fairly safe in assuming – that the state had the powers it exercised when it issued the safer at home order,” Thomas said.

Thomas said if the board moves forward with an ordinance, it should establish “on-ramp” and “off-ramp” criteria governing how long and under what circumstances the order remains in effect.

Chief Deputy Patrick McCarty told supervisors it would be difficult for the Door County Sheriff’s Office to enforce a mask order, noting that the summer is the office’s busiest time of year.

“We’re triaging calls right now,” McCarty said.

Businesses, residents request county leadership

Multiple supervisors noted that businesses have requested a mask order, even if the county cannot enforce the order itself, to give them legal backing for requiring customers to wear masks. Board chair David Lienau said of the calls and emails he received in advance of the meeting that were in support of an order, half were from businesses. Lienau represents the village of Sister Bay and part of the town of Liberty Grove.

The lack of a county-wide order puts service industry employees in the difficult position of having to enforce mask requirements specific to their businesses, said supervisor Megan Lundahl, who represents part of the west side of the city of Sturgeon Bay. If a surge in COVID-19 cases results in another shutdown of the county’s economy, Lundahl said, many small businesses might not survive.

Supervisor Kara Counard, who represents the towns of Gardner and Nasewaupee, said the main problem the county needs to solve is protecting its most vulnerable residents, including employees in low-income and essential jobs.

“I think that if you wait for a legal backing, you’re losing out on a whole month,” Counard said.

The majority of the members of the public who spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, including Sister Bay resident Nancy Akerly, supported a mask order.

“I urge you, please, to pass something requiring masking, to support our local businesses and the health of our community,” Akerly said.