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We Are Now Entering Vigorous Enforcement of Coronavirus Laws

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Frank Augstein

WATERTOWN, Wis. — Anthony Chentis learned firsthand the meaning of vigorous enforcement of the new coronavirus law.

Chentis is owner of Anthony’s 511, one of several Watertown hair salons and barber shops in limbo after police went door-to-door Wednesday ordering all such establishments to shut down.

The Watertown Police Department, according to multiple hair stylists and state Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown) said it was just following the order by the local health department, which was just following the Evers administration order banning gatherings of 10 or more people and closing down a wide swath of businesses.

Except hair salons are not included on the list of businesses ordered to close. As you can imagine, confusion ensued.

“What happened yesterday is our mayor and health department read the (Gov. Tony) Evers’ email (order) wrong. The way they interpreted it is, they thought it applied to barber shops and salons, even though it didn’t,” Jagler said.

When the state representative informed city officials of the mistake, he said they quickly rescinded the order insisting they did not want to be more restrictive than the state policy.

But by that time, the damage had been done.

“We were busy,” Chentis said. After police told him he could reopen, Chentis said he had canceled all the shop’s appointments for the week and he didn’t want to create more confusion in the lives of his customers “already in crisis.”

So, Anthony’s 511 is done — for now. So are other hair salons hit by the order and the confusion surrounding it. They’ve laid off workers and canceled appointments. Many had already been hit hard by the separation order, as fear of the coronavirus and enforcement of the public emergency law spreads.

Watertown Police Chief Robert Kaminski declined to comment. He advised Empower Wisconsin to contact the local health department.

Chentis said a police officer walked in to the salon and said, ‘I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news. You’re gonna have to close this down.”

“I was cutting a customer’s hair at the time so I said, ‘Can I finish this guy’s hair?’ He said, ‘Well, no, you have to shut it down now,’” Chentis said. “I finished the guy’s haircut.”

At least one other local health agency has taken steps to shut down hair salons and other cosmetology businesses not included on the state order.

On the authority of state statute 252.03(2), the Manitowoc County Health Officer on Thursday ordered that hair salons, nail salons, and massage parlors must close immediately “because of the high likelihood that patrons and employees will be within arm’s length for more than 10 minutes.”

Jagler said local health agencies may, during the health crisis, issue more prohibitive health orders than the state, but as of late Thursday the state had not ordered salons and similar establishments closed. It boils down to the nebulous “social distancing rule,” including the edict to keep a six-foot distance — or safe space, if you will.

Police are cracking down on violators. In Brookfield, law enforcement officials shut down a bar Tuesday evening for failing to comply with Evers’ state order.

Co-owner Jennine Paoli told WISN in Milwaukee that she didn’t intend to put customers at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“We were just trying to stay open long enough (Tuesday) so that we can afford to pay our staff, because we just had to lay off 58 people,” she said.

Restaurant, bar and salon owners tell Empower Wisconsin that some competitors are reporting violators to police. As Empower Wisconsin reported Thursday, Madison and Dane County health departments now provide an online form for citizen informants to report businesses and neighbors they believe to be breaking the new coronavirus laws.

Attorney General Josh Kaul has made clear that, “Violation of the governor’s order could result in up to 30 days in imprisonment and a fine of up to $500.” Will local police make such arrests, and will local district attorneys prosecute the “crime” of people assembling?

As state Sen. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon) told Vicki McKenna on her radio show Thursday, these are conflicting times for public health and individual liberties. He advised governments to first look to the things they cannot do, which are clearly defined in the U.S. and state constitutions.

For now, Sara Jensen is thinking about how she will survive. The hair stylist and independent business owner works out of Anthony’s 511. She said she lost 10 bookings immediately Wednesday when she was ordered to shut down.

Jensen was hit doubly hard. Her “side job” is bartending.

“That’s also out right now,” she said. “I’m just crossing my fingers and not spending money as much as possible.”

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