LANCASTER, Wis. — Two weeks after a failed push to fire Grant County’s health director, five county supervisors on Tuesday unsuccessfully pushed to reduce the department’s powers.
Only one supervisor supported the earlier push to fire Jeff Kindrai in September, but on Tuesday, another supervisor proposed rescinding the county’s emergency COVID-19 resolution, enacted in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. Supervisor Porter Wagner also demanded the board strip the health department of its enforcement powers related to schools and COVID-19.
“We’ve got a lot of pissed off parents out there, a lot of constituents,” said Wagner, facing Kindrai during the supervisors’ Tuesday meeting. “… They have the right to do with their children what they want to do, and you’re overstepping your power.”
In recent weeks, Kindrai has drawn the ire of families and county leaders for his perceived role in quarantining students from schools after children have been exposed to COVID-19. Grant County parents have placed increasing pressure on the supervisors to intervene in decisions they say are disrupting their lives.
Amanda Buschor, a Lancaster mother of three, said she recognizes the severity of COVID-19 and received the vaccine, but she wants input in whether her children stay in the classroom.
“COVID-19 is real,” Buschor said. “But our kids’ livelihood is also real. Their mental health is real.”
Grant County Corporation Counsel Ben Wood clarified that the Board of Supervisors has no jurisdiction over Kindrai’s obligations to monitor and control the spread of communicable disease, which are authorized in state statute, nor over the governance of school districts, whose policies are set by school boards.
“You can’t make a motion to override state statute,” Wood said.
“Well, that’s too bad,” Wagner said.
The proposals Tuesday came after Supervisor Pat Shroeder attempted in September to fire Kindrai in an effort to “restore unity in our county.” None of the other 16 supervisors on the board backed the measure, which died without a vote, a development that surprised Schroeder.
Wood told the board Tuesday that rescinding the county’s emergency COVID-19 resolution also would have no effect on Kindrai’s powers.
The resolution authorizes County Board Chairman Bob Keeney to, if necessary, close county offices, make sudden staffing changes, alter time-off policies and pay, and enable supervisors to participate in meetings remotely while still counting toward a quorum.
Several emergency proclamations have been enacted since, such as offering employees of the county-owned nursing home, Orchard Manor, additional compensation to work extra hours in hopes of mitigating a staffing shortage.
Rescinding the resolution would nullify that and many more emergency proclamations, a worrisome prospect to county administrators.
“It’s going to make a crisis staffing situation that much worse,” said Orchard Manor Administrator Carol Schwartz.
Five supervisors — Wagner, Roger Guthrie, John Patcle, Patrick Schroeder and Lester Jantzen — proceeded, voting in favor of rescission. Twelve opposed it.
Before voting, Wagner questioned the validity of COVID-19 case numbers published by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services along with Kindrai’s credentials.
“It’s time to start stepping forward with common sense and start getting moving forward,” Wagner said. “All this stuff that you’re throwing at us is a bunch of malarkey as far as I’m concerned.”
The state reported that as of Tuesday, an average of 2,663 new COVID-19 cases had been reported daily over the previous seven days, as well as 13 additional related deaths per day. Case activity was classified as “critically high” in 21 counties and “very high” in the other 51 counties in the state, including Grant County.
On Tuesday, Grant County reported 38 new cases of COVID-19 and a related death.
Kindrai said Tuesday that he knows that some families oppose public health measures to the extent that they have sent sick children to school without testing them for the coronavirus to avoid quarantines. The children later tested positive, which ultimately increased the number of people who had to quarantine.
“We’ve even had some parents send their kid to school with a known positive test result,” Kindrai said. “Keeping your kids home when they are sick is helpful. I do realize it is much more challenging now because all the programs that were there to help people with their pay are pretty much gone.”
County Supervisor John Beinborn thinks that parental frustration stems from disparate policies among school districts, which require students to quarantine under different circumstances.
Kindrai said he issues public health recommendations to schools based upon state and federal guidelines but only has once issued a quarantine order at the request of the Iowa-Grant School District.
Wood noted that a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision last year clarified that public health officers lack legal authority to issue universal mask mandates or stay-at-home orders, but statute does authorize them to quarantine known COVID-19 cases.
“Even when an order is issued, it’s based on voluntary compliance,” Wood said. “I don’t think Jeff has the capability or means to say we’re going to show up and arrest kids and throw them in jail.”
Following the vote, Schroeder said he was happy that four additional supervisors rallied behind him.