by CHRIS ROGERS
A proposed Winona County public health emergency ordinance — originally intended to enable a mask mandate — isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The County Board decided tonight against moving forward on the ordinance, which would have empowered the board to take a variety of actions in response to health emergencies, such as a mask mandate. County Board members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward were strongly opposed to the ordinance, calling it government overreach, while members Chris Meyer and Greg Olson said that the issue was not a fight worth having at the moment.
“I really feel like Winona County would be better served by us, by our staff putting our energy into getting the folks who will get vaccinated vaccinated,” Meyer said. “And I say that because while the masks are effective, the vaccines really are much more protection. So I question whether it’s worth having this fight right now, when we’re not going to put [the ordinance] into place right now.”
In a 3-2 decision in August, Kovecsi, Olson, and Meyer voted to direct county staff to draft the ordinance, with the intention of using it to enact a countywide mask requirement. While the County Board chair — currently Ward — has the power to issue emergency orders, similar to the mask mandate Winona Mayor Scott Sherman issued this fall, the ordinance would have given similar power to the board as a whole.
The draft ordinance says the board could enact measures “preventing the spread of communicable disease” but does not specify what those measures could be. A mask mandate is one option, and Sonneman said business capacity restrictions or even a vaccine requirement could, in theory, be possible other options.
“I am not going to support any mask mandate at this time. I think that time has come and gone,” Olson said at the meeting. While he, Kovecsi, and Meyer had previously suggested having the ordinance in place might be useful so that the board could, down the road, react quickly to impose some COVID safety regulations, Olson wasn’t interested tonight. “I can move beyond this [ordinance] and move to the next agenda item,” he said.
“I agreed, but I wanted to keep it on the table,” Kovecsi said in an interview. She added, “We don’t know where this pandemic is going. I’m very concerned. We have 60 percent of the county vaccinated. We need to do more. That’s the most secure protection we can offer.”
Jacob and Ward voted to abandon the proposed ordinance entirely, an effort that failed 2-3. Instead, Kovecsi, Olson, and Meyer voted 3-2 to table the ordinance, meaning the board could take it up again at a future date.
Several citizens spoke at the meeting, opposing the ordinance and any mandates, and commissioners said they had received scores of calls and emails.
“I can take care of myself and my loved ones. I can do what is best for me and my loved ones in any type of emergency,” Elba Township resident Sharron Behrens said.
“The community sees [this issue] very clearly as the government expanding their powers over them,” Jacob said. “They want their liberty. They don’t want the government to have these powers to even more rapidly impose these restrictions on them. So I’m going to take what I’m hearing from the community and do everything I can to stop this power grab by our local government.”
“People want to be able to make their decision. They don’t want government telling them when and how to do it,” Ward echoed.
“I don’t think it’s an individual rights thing,” Kovecsi said in an interview. “I think no one has the right to make someone else sick even if it’s not on purpose.” Everyone has a responsibility to take steps to mitigate that risk, she added.