Polk County Sheriff Brent Waak issued a statement on the official department Facebook page on April 21 criticizing Gov. Evers’ extension of the safer-at-home order.
The order is currently set to remain in place until May 26. Small protests have taken place across the state, as well as in Minnesota and Michigan, calling on elected officials to forego quarantine orders and reopen local economies. Although the economy began as the driving factor behind these protests, many now see any shelter-in-place order as an affront to their civil liberties. Waak’s stance is slightly more nuanced, and he said for him it’s about balance.
“From the beginning of this pandemic I’ve had to balance one’s constitutional freedoms and enforcing an order,” he said. “And I’ve really tried to find the balance in that.”
Waak said he’s not calling to completely open up the county and turn it into a free-for-all with no pandemic guidelines, but said his major criticism is that more control should be handed over to the local levels of government, especially in an area as rural as Polk county.
“Every county is not the same, if you have a highly dense population you have a bigger problem with this pandemic than we do in a rural area,” he said. “I just think you can’t paint the state with one brush.”
His statement said he believes the county can reopen, with some precautions in place.
“I believe that most Polk County businesses can safely operate with some protective measures in place,” read the statement. “Such as social distancing and protective equipment for staff/patrons.”
While the lack of population density may put areas like Polk County at an advantage initially, rural areas also generally have an older population and thus more people vulnerable to COVID-19. According to public US government data compiled by DATAUSA, Polk County has a median age of 44.8 years, while Hennepin County in the heart of Minneapolis has a median age of 36.4 years.
History also suggests rural areas are not less susceptible to pandemics, as the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak ravaged Polk County just as it did the rest of the country, hitting hardest after more urban areas had already begun to see a decline in cases.
One day after Waak issued his statement, the department issued a joint statement with the Polk County Health Department that appeared to contradict Waak’s opinion. It stated a return to normalcy in Polk County would be best achieved by “practicing physical distancing and other public health recommendations while adhering to emergency order #28 (safer-at-home order).”
Waak does not believe this is a contradiction.
“If you read the last part of my statement I said I look forward to working with public health and finding a path forward, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
The reaction to Waak’s statement was much more intense than he imagined, and included equal amounts of praise and condemnation. Many county residents believe it is time to get back to work, while others say the state has to stay the course of the safer-at-home order.
In a recent poll issued by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, 70 percent of respondents said they believe the safer-at-home order should remain in place until May 26. Twenty percent said the order should end immediately, while the remaining 10 percent said it should extend past May 26.
Waak said regardless of opinion, this is a discussion local communities need to be having.
“I would challenge all community leaders to have this conversation,” he said. “The public is desperate for some answers and I think if we can have this conversation we can find what the end of this looks like.”