A dance studio faces almost $24,000 in fines after Public Health Madison and Dane County alleged the business violated a county social gathering ban amid COVID-19.
A Leap Above held a performance of The Nutcracker Ballet that included 119 dancers on Dec. 13, alleges a complaint the health authority filed with the Dane County Circuit Court Jan. 25. That was a violation of Emergency Order #10, which prohibited all mass gatherings — including those up to ten people, according to the complaint. Each infraction carries a $200 fine, adding up to $24,000.
But Natalie Nemeckay, owner of the studio, located at 742 Market St., told the Observer the recording of the ballet took place over six hours, in small groups of people ranging from three to nine individuals including the videographers and dancers — totaling 106 people throughout the day. She said the groups would be let in the building one at a time, and each group would leave before the next was let in.
Nemeckay is challenging the PHMDC complaint with the help of Milwaukee-based law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. The firm also filed a lawsuit on behalf of several plaintiffs Jan. 20 challenging PHMDC’s Emergency Order #10, which A Leap Above joined this month.
The law firm has challenged several of the emergency declaration orders Gov. Tony Evers issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the mask mandate, according to WILL’s website.
The firm’s argument against the PHMDC complaint is that while the order prohibited mass gatherings, Nemeckay didn’t know her classes fell under that category. They contend that the order allowed “child care and youth settings” such as “unregulated youth programs” to continue to host groups of 15 or fewer students. The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families includes “group lessons to develop a talent or skill such as dance,” like those taught at A Leap Above, in that unregulated youth program category, Nemeckay said.
And the lawsuit the firm filed Jan. 20 with the county circuit court claims PHMDC did not have the authority to issue restrictions without permission from local elected officials. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of two parents who have children on local sports teams and feel their personal liberties have been infringed upon, a WILL news release said.
The county received notification both on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 that the studio was conducting in-person dance classes in violation of the health order, according to the complaint. Then, on Dec. 11, the county received another tip alleging more classes were taking place and that the Nutcracker recording was still scheduled.
It was at this point that the department attempted to warn Nemeckay of her violation, its complaint states.
In a Jan. 29 post in the “The OPEN Oregon WI Community Page” on Facebook with over 300 comments, some parents of A Leap Above students claim they questioned the decision to go forward with recording The Nutcracker. The commenters claimed the studio sent several communications to parents assuring them that PHMDC was “wrong,” citing its lawyer at the time.
Nemeckay said the county mailed her a letter on Friday, Dec. 11, warning her not to go ahead with the recording – which she said arrived Tuesday, Dec. 15.
The PHMDC complaint states it left her a voicemail on Friday, Dec. 11. But Nemeckay said that was after she had closed the studio that day, and as she’s typically not open on weekends, she did not check her messages until Monday.
Nemeckay said her and other dance group leaders attempted to communicate with PHMDC to clarify the orders many times last year.
Last year, a group of around 20 dance studio owners, including Nemeckay, attempted to have a meeting with PHMDC to explain how they’re trying to host classes in a safe way, and that none of the 20 owners have seen a COVID-19 spread at their business. She said the group’s requests for a video conference with the health department to clarify the health orders were ignored.
Nemeckay said she feels her business has done its due diligence to follow public health orders. For the past 10 months, she said the studio floor was taped-off to ensure physical distancing, dancers were required to wear masks 100% of the time, and she disinfected the studio between groups.
Nemeckay said she’s not against the health department restrictions, but she said she believes that elected officials should vote on them before they go into effect.
“We’re asking the court to rein in the ability for one unelected official to unilaterally issue restrictions,” she said referring to Janel Heinrich, the director of PHMDC. “It should be a Dane County board, not just one unelected official. That’s an overreach of legal authority.”