Dane County, Madison officials fight over reopening too soon, decision-making process

Spats between the legislative and executive officials are not restricted to state government

Dane County
Dane County's plan to reopen, Forward Dane, drew criticism from Madison Common Council members and County Board Supervisors. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

A fight over coronavirus response in Wisconsin has broken out between executive leadership and legislative officials. But it’s not between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm and the Republican majority in the State Legislature. 

Instead, it’s between Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) Director Janel Heinrich — together on one side —  and a group of 14 largely progressive members of the City of Madison’s Common Council and Dane County Board of Supervisors.

In a letter released Tuesday morning — hours after Dane County’s local stay-at-home order expired and businesses were permitted to open at limited capacity — the alders and supervisors outlined a number of complaints with the “Forward Dane” plan to reopen the county. 

They also raised a number of questions about the plan and the criteria that will be used to determine further decisions on lifting or reinstituting restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Madison Alds. Patrick Heck, Marsha Rummel, Max Prestigiacomo, Syed Abbas, Tag Evers, Grant Foster, Samba Baldeh and Rebecca Kemble, and county Supvs. Heidi Wegleitner, Elena Haasl, Yogesh Chawla, Holly Hatcher, Michele Ritt and Richard Kilmer write that the county is opening too quickly and at the expense of worker safety. 

“Reopening risks a resurgence of the virus, which is disproportionately affecting poor, uninsured, low-wage workers who have no alternative but to go to risky jobs that make them vulnerable,” they write. “Multiple studies have shown that the pandemic has been devastating economically, especially in black and brown communities where people may live with extended families and are more likely to be employed in public-facing occupations such as food service, transportation, and home health care where they are more susceptible to become infected.” 

What this does, the writers say, is to force workers to make an impossible choice between their health and their paycheck.

“The letter is important, but this whole plan in the first place, what this is is businesses pressuring our leadership to give in and capitulate,” Prestigiacomo, who represents a district made up of mostly UW-Madison students, says. “Which in the end will put working-class community members in hazardous conditions.”

While the officials say they wrote the letter out of concern for the community’s working class, much of the letter’s content is a criticism of the metrics used by PHMDC in the Forward Dane plan that were used to move into phase one on Tuesday. 

The criticism of the metrics is based largely on a several thousand word email that was sent to city and county officials by UW-Madison researcher Dr. Gregory Gelembiuk. 

“I am writing to express my concerns about the Public Health Madison & Dane County reopening plan. It appears to have no valid scientific basis,” Gelembiuk’s email states. “1. Reopening now is very ill advised. 2. The reopening criteria for the Forward Dane plan are severely flawed and lack an adequate basis in science. 3. The types of sites allowed to reopen and the types of events permitted under the Forward Dane plan are very problematic. 4. There is a way to reopen safely.” 

The crux of Gelembiuk’s argument is that the metrics used by the county aren’t stringent or specific enough to be adequate measures of whether or not the county is ready to reopen. He said that the number of infections in the county is continuing to rise and the only way to reopen safely is to dramatically increase testing and contact tracing ability. 

Gelembiuk added that the county does not yet have the required testing and tracing capabilities, but that reopening now only gives people an unnecessary choice. 

“The current approach to reopening presents a false choice —  either staying in lockdown indefinitely or risking one’s life,” he says. “That there’s a far better feasible choice is not widely enough recognized.”

In a response to the letter, Heinrich released a memo that contradicts the argument against the county’s metrics. It also outlines the reasons why each metric was chosen and how the data shows the county is ready for phase one of its reopening plan. 

“The metrics we have identified in Forward Dane are the result of a deep assessment of the landscape of existing plans — local, regional, state, national, governmental, nongovernmental,” Heinrich’s memo states. “The metrics for moving through phases are locally tailored, and built using both national guidance as well as our historic data. As a smaller jurisdiction with a low-incidence epidemic, the state-level metrics are not as sensitive as we need to detect meaningful change. Hence our nine metrics outlined in Forward Dane.” 

But aside from the concerns over the risk to working Dane County residents and questions over the metrics, the letter writers are also saying they’ve been muscled out of the decision-making process and have no way to hold Parisi, Rhodes-Conway and Heinrich accountable for their actions. 

“All public health decisions have been made at the executive level with policy makers being informed after the fact by press releases and expected to carry the message to area residents having not been consulted in the process,” the letter states.

The officials wanted to raise their specific concerns in the letter, but also wanted to more broadly address the way county leadership has addressed the crisis in recent weeks. In Madison, where many board and committee hearings have been canceled, alders feel like they’ve been left without a seat at the table — and without the ability to garner public feedback.  

“Our letter is based on those data points and the science, but our concerns are that number one, the County Board Supervisors and Alders have not been consulted in the process of making these policy decisions,” says Dist. 18 Ald. Kemble. “The power has been taken away from us.” 

“Our normal ways of informing policy have been shut down,” she adds. “Having back room discussions with the mayor and county executive is not good governance.”

County Board Chair Analiese Eicher

For officials who did not sign on to the letter, the method was more of an issue than the message itself. County Board Chair Analiese Eicher says she has concerns with reopening too quickly, but those concerns — especially coming from elected officials — should be brought the right way.

“Yes there are valid concerns, but I think there might’ve been a better approach when it comes to getting these questions answered,” Eicher says. “I’m concerned the letter is more an attempt at a political play than actually using science and data and channels of communication, particularly channels that are available to elected officials.”

While officials such as Kemble say they haven’t been able to communicate with the PHMDC about the reopening process, Eicher doesn’t buy it. She says the department has been able and willing to answer questions from supervisors, alders and the public. 

Kemble and Prestigiacomo also say there wasn’t enough time for officials to analyze and respond to the Forward Dane plan and the news that restrictions would begin to lift on Tuesday. The plan was released May 18 and the announcement that the county would be entering phase one came May 22. 

Eicher says this means there was a week between the plan’s announcement and phase one, giving plenty of time for any officials to ask questions they may have. 

Ultimately, Eicher says the policy should rely on the county’s experts to act in the best interest of the community. 

“Part of this has to be trust that our public health department is doing what they can to keep our community safe,” she says. “I trust the public health department is doing that. This is based on the comments in one email. A lot of us share concerns about science and metrics and data. We have experts in public health for a reason and we listen to experts for a reason.” 

But signatories say they hope the plan is able to change as quickly as the pandemic can change.  

“The plan is presumably flexible, subject to changes in response to the facts on the ground,” Dist.13 Ald. Evers says. “If there are grounds for making changes, one assumes Public Health will do so responsibly.  Now’s not the time to get locked in.” 

In Heinrich’s memo, she said the plan allows for the county to move slowly and cautiously, even moving backward if necessary. 

“Depending on the future trajectory of this virus, if the metrics start to turn red, we are prepared to reconsider whether in the best interest of public health we would need to potentially move to a more restrictive phase to slow the spread of this disease,” the memo states. “As you are also well aware, this has been an extremely challenging time for both state and local public health.”