Combating the spread of COVID-19 is in local hands as of Wednesday, May 13.

In a 4-3 vote Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state’s Safer at Home order extension to May 26. Bars, restaurants and other businesses across the state were able to open immediately, and people could once again gather in large groups.

The order, however, did not prevent city and county health departments from imposing or continuing their own orders, and Dane County imposed an order of its own similar to the state’s on the same day as the court’s ruling. It expires May 26, but Dane County Executive Joe Parisi told the Hub on a conference call Thursday, May 14, that it would be extended if needed.

That’s because the illness isn’t going away any time soon, Parisi said.

“We preferred a statewide approach,” Parisi said. “The virus knows no boundaries. Pretending the virus doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away.”

Rock and Green counties, to the south, are working with Dane County and were following suit, he added.

The court’s ruling comes after the Legislature’s Republican leaders filed a lawsuit last month, claiming state Department of Health Services secretary-designee Andrea Palm did not have the power to extend the order beyond 60 days from the original order, which was May 12. They argued allowing it to extend the additional two weeks would cost Wisconsin residents jobs and would hurt many companies.

Justices wrote in their decision that the DHS order extension overstepped its authority to dictate the lives of law-abiding citizens.

Dane County, however, still retains the authority to keep the orders – which restrict reopening businesses until conditions meet six criteria showing the spread of the illness is confined.

Parisi said reopening the county is contingent upon meeting public health criteria for flattening the curve, which includes expanded testing measures, contact tracing and isolating the sick – so as to not overwhelm hospitals. Even that, he said, means there likely won’t be any concerts, crowded restaurants, sporting events or conferences – large gatherings of any kind – until there is a vaccine or effective treatment, Parisi said.

But how much to reopen and when is a delicate balance to strike, Parisi said, as the health crisis has put a strain on the economy. He said the county continues to be in contact with hard-hit local businesses and chambers of commerce to gather their feedback on gradually reopening.

“We will hit certain milestones as we gradually loosen up,” Parisi said. “We only want to have to do this once. People need consistency, and they need information.”

It’s all about getting to a place where the infection rate is low enough the county can effectively trace every positive result that comes up, he said. About 25% of cases in Dane County have been due to community spread, he said, meaning no one knows how or when a person contracted the illness and that the county has not fully met contact tracing criteria.

That might be helped along with an effort to provide free testing to anyone who requests it at the now vacant Alliant Energy Center. The county has been partnering with the Wisconsin National Guard to provide up to 800 tests per day, he said.

The data gathered from that testing helps provide the county with a more complete picture of the illness’s scope, which he called a step in the right direction.

He said while things might look different by the time May 26 rolls around, it won’t be how it was before the coronavirus wreaked its havoc.

“The new normal is going to look different until there is a vaccine,” Parisi said.

Email Emilie Heidemann at or follow her on Twitter at @HeidemannEmilie.