Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Mercer town board discusses COVID issues

MERCER, Wis. — COVID-19 topics took up most of the Mercer Town Board of Supervisors meeting Thursday, including concerns about thousands of people attending the annual Loon Day event in August.

In his COVID-19 update, Town Chairman John Sendra said the Iron County Health Department will conduct a drive-thru COVID-19 testing event from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, July 24 at the Wisconsin DNR Mercer Ranger Station on U.S. 51. There are 400 tests that will be first-come, first-served.

Sendra said he attended a recent Iron County meeting that included presentations from the health department. With the recent spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county, he asked if it would be possible for Mercer emergency medical services responders to be informed when responding to someone who is a known COVID-19 positive case.

Sendra also asked that the town be provided with COVID-19 statistics to differentiate local confirmed cases with county-wide numbers. Both requests were denied, he said.

“If people say there is an uptick in cases from the Fourth (of July) then I would like to see the evidence,” he said.

Sendra invited local resident Bill Brundage to speak via Zoom. Brundage said that Section 5 of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act law should allow for the health department to go through county emergency dispatch to provide that information to first responders without being in violation of HIPAA laws.

“There is a balance,” Sendra said of circumstances where privacy is protected and providing information in the public interest.

Fritz Schellgell, town attorney, said that he didn’t see a HIPAA issue with the EMS responders who share the same social code of ethics but for the city to access the same information is “a slippery slope,” he said. The COVID-19 pandemic emergency powers grant the town chair certain authority but there is no precedent or exception which clearly presents a risk.

The town cannot disseminate private information, and to use the information to reach a conclusion and act based on the information presents risk, he said. There are municipalities across the country that have overreacted and the lawsuits will add up, he said.

“You don’t know the upside and the liability side is too great,” Schellgell said. “If you tell people to do something and there is a health issue then you could be liable.”

In the town supervisors’ reports, Eric Snow said he has received several phone calls from people who are concerned about the 40th Loon Day scheduled for Aug. 5. The Mercer Area Chamber of Commerce organizes the annual outdoor shopping, food and music event that attracts more than 250 vendors and thousands of shoppers.

“If the chamber chooses to withdraw from that activity then I would support the chamber’s position,” Snow said. “But I, personally, am not in favor of taking it from the chamber.”

Michael Lambert, supervisor, said he would also support the chamber’s decision if it chose to cancel the event. But it should be a chamber decision, he said.

“If the chamber wants to go ahead with it then that is fine with me,” Lambert said.

The board discussed a variety of committee-approved changes to the town employee sick leave, vacation and personal time off model to be incorporated into an employee manual. The action was tabled following new discussion on related topics of on-the-job injury reporting criteria, short-term and long-term disability, and maximum allowable accumulated PTO hours before and after approving the manual.

Sendra said there were 52 fireworks permits issued prior to the Fourth of July. There were no citations issued but there were complaints of people setting off fireworks during non-permitted hours.

Sendra said the town would be sending a formal letter to a property owner in the vicinity of Scheels Road and County Road J. The letter is the first step with enforcing the blight ordinance and will express the importance of maintaining a property free of debris and garbage and not waiting for complaints that result in a city order.

Jake Saarnio, road crew foreman, said in his report that the Mills Point and Pine Forest road project is moving ahead of schedule with the engineering plan going through the approval process with the state Department of Transportation. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which provided a grant to help fund the project, will let the crews start a week early with cutting trees, stumping and brushing in preparation for moving a gas line.

Saarnio said the town’s radio tower is leaning and cannot be repaired as an obsolete platform. He is seeking quotes for a new tower and anticipates it will be expensive.

Saarnio and a town mechanic traveled to Porterfield, Wisconsin to assess the condition of a heavy equipment trailer and agreed to the $15,500 purchase. The trailer is needed for the town semi tractor and the Porterfield road crew will drive it the 162 miles to Mercer.

“It’s in good shape,” Saarnio said.

In other business, the board approved:

—A $21,305 low bid for crack sealing to Pitlik & Wick, Inc., of Eagle River.

—One bartender’s license

—A cemetery deed

—A sign permit for Wisconsin Woodsmith, LLC at 4757N Parkway Drive.

The next regular meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 6, at the Mercer Community Center.

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