The Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce has publicly supported local public health measures since the coronavirus pandemic began, but on Monday the business group spoke against proposed communicable disease ordinances.
Following a 1½-hour-long meeting of the chamber’s board of directors, the organization stated that it wants the Eau Claire City Council and Eau Claire County Board to withdraw their proposals and “go back to the drawing board.”
Dave Minor, chamber president and CEO, said the board felt there were too many unanswered questions about the ordinances because of how broadly they were written.
“It was too vague or ambiguous on what they could do with this,” he said.
Slated for City Council and County Board votes later this month, the ordinances outline powers of the local public health officer when communicable diseases threaten the community. City and county officials said the ordinances do not expand the health officer’s powers beyond what is allowed by state law and adds legislative oversight.
But the chamber contended that oversight — votes the County Board or City Council could take after the health officer issues orders — are too passive. The chamber said it would prefer that elected leaders would instead exercise their power of direct legislation to create policy.
Eau Claire City Attorney Stephen Nick said the proposed ordinances do include the option of direct legislation by elected officials to make public health policies. When the city is dealing with a long-term response to a communicable disease for over a year, the proposals state that the only method then would be direct legislation from elected officials.
Chamber members also expressed their concerns that the ordinances allow for closures of entire categories of businesses as part of the response to a communicable disease.
“When you’re talking about people’s livelihoods, we need to make sure we have everything covered the best we can,” Minor said.
The ordinance would allow for orders applying to specific classifications of businesses, but Nick said that would be avoided whenever possible. The public health officer would also have to show the classification is necessary, substantially relates to mitigating a public health threat and is supported by the best available scientific understanding, he said.
In addition to calling upon the city and county to withdraw their proposals, the chamber stated that if they are redrafted for another try that multiple constituencies get the opportunity to give their input.
“If brought back forward, the business community, educational institutions, health care organizations and others should be consulted so a consensus can be reached on the appropriate approaches to orders of general application, emergency powers, legislative oversight and enforcement,” the chamber wrote.
The City Council is slated to hold a public hearing on Oct. 12 about the city’s version of the proposed ordinance before it can vote on it the following day.
Council President Terry Weld said he appreciated the chamber’s consideration and input, and will take it into account along with opinions from educators, health professionals and other community members who are weighing in on the proposals.
“We’re hearing all different ranges of people supporting it and not supporting it,” he said.
An opportunity for the public to learn more about the proposed ordinances will be Wednesday evening, where city and county officials will participate in an online question-and-answer session.
The County Board is scheduled to hold its public hearing and vote on the ordinance at an Oct. 20 meeting.
Before issuing its stance on the ordinances, the chamber had in recent weeks hosted a virtual town hall meeting, surveyed members and asked attorneys to analyze the proposed legislation.
The chamber’s statement remarks that the Eau Claire area has had relatively lower case numbers compared to other areas, but case numbers have increased and a challenge still exists.
“We still have a virus we’re dealing with as a community, state, nation and world,” Minor said.
The chamber continues to advocate that people wear face masks, practice social distancing and frequent hand washing as ways to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Weld acknowledged there has been debate in the community over how to address the pandemic, but he said there is a common goal.
“In the end we all want the same thing — for people to be safe, healthy and come out of this as quickly as we can,” he said.