Records: PHMDC issues almost $200K in Covid-related fines to individuals, businesses in pandemic

MADISON, Wis. — Public health officials in Dane County have issued almost $200,000 in fines to businesses and individuals violating Dane County public health orders since last summer, a records request filed with Public Health Madison and Dane County shows. Businesses are on the hook for more than $50,000 of that, while individuals charged with violations for group gatherings face another $137,000 in maximum fines–before court fees.

Forty people are facing violations of the large gathering part of the order in court, with gatherings ranging from a few to more than 100 people, according to records. At least 90% of them are college students, Madison assistant city attorney Marci Paulsen said. Large gathering complaints typically start with a noise complaint or a call to 911 dispatch, and public health will at times accompany police to the door where officials count how many people have gathered and cite the hosts accordingly.

“We want individuals to comply with the order, but when they don’t we feel the need to either reissue citations or bring them into court,” Paulsen said.

Public health in Dane County decided to stiffen up enforcement in the fall to try and ramp up compliance with existing public health orders. That’s resulted in few repeat offenders, but it’s unclear whether it’s resulting in fewer violations overall. 63 businesses in Dane County have been cited, according to county documents, including two facing complaints in circuit court.

“It’s a combination of not understanding, and not thinking the order applies to them,” Paulsen said of repeat offenders. A first citation to a business violating safety protocols under the order has been resulting in a $376 fine in Madison; some repeaters, like Bowl-A-Vard Lanes in Madison, are facing a $1,321 citation that could end up waived if further violations aren’t incurred. Other offenders include four different McDonalds locations in Madison and Monona owned by D P & K Inc.

“We try to reach out to the business first and provide education when we can. And then if we get a second complaint we would go out,” Maulsen explained. “Some places we receive so many complaints, like 10 at once, that we feel we need to do an on-site immediately and see what is going on and ensure individuals are complying.”

A Dane County dance studio is taxed with almost half of all fines issued to businesses in the county, with 119 counts worth $200 each. A Leap Above is fighting back, joining a lawsuit with other Dane County parents that argues the fines themselves are based on an unconstitutional ordinance passed by the county in May.

“None of the orders that the health department has issued are enforceable, so any fines or any enforcement actions so far are, in our view, illegal,” said attorney Luke Berg with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which is representing the studio. Berg says their legal argument effectively states that elected officials should vote on public health orders that result in enforcement actions.

Under an ordinance the county updated on June 1, refusing to obey a public health order amounts to an ordinance violation, punishable by a fine.

For large group gatherings where a single charge represents a $1,000 fine, Paulsen said most people facing several citations in court could later have that number reduced. On Friday, forty people in total are currently being prosecuted for violations of Dane County’s public health order in municipal court. All of them were charged with multiple violation counts for a group gathering, for a maximum of $137,000 in punishable fines.

The total in fines, however, could be unlikely to materialize into completed payments once agreements are reached in court. On the business side of citations, companies who don’t violate again may have follow-up or outstanding citations waived.

Dane County is under its thirteenth emergency order implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the county. Masking, social distancing, and business indoor capacity limits have been key parts of those orders. Officials credit them with helping keep the spread of the virus below rates in other counties.

“We want to slow the spread of the virus,” Maulsen said, “and our orders are in place to try and do that.”