By Dave Fidlin

Correspondent

After fielding concerns of college-aged students gathering in large groups this past week, Whitewater officials are in the preliminary stage of exploring an ordinance that could limit mass gatherings on private property.

The Common Council on Sept. 1 had a lengthy discussion about curtailing the spread of COVID-19 as the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater embarks on a new school year at an unprecedented time.

The coronavirus has been a frequent topic of discussion at council meetings this summer. The seven-person council, whose members meet virtually in lieu of a traditional in-person setting, previously enacted a mask requirement that runs through the end of the year — three months longer than Gov. Tony Evers’ current order.

While provisions against mass gatherings in public spaces have been in place since COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic nearly six months ago, the council is looking to extend it to private properties.

City Attorney Wally McDonell was directed to draft a proposed ordinance. McDonell, who acknowledged reaching into private property could be challenged, said he would consult with his counterparts in other localities and other organizations, such as the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

“There’s no guarantee it will be upheld,” McDonell said of the proposal. “This is a difficult area. It’s untested waters.”

But as concerns of college parties and other scenarios remain in the foreground, most of the council members said they wanted to act swiftly and decisively, using the city’s emergency declaration as a foundation for their premise.

“We need to be strict, and we need to be quick about it,” said council member James Allen, who proposed holding a special meeting Sept. 3 to vote on an ordinance.

Instead, officials will convene next week, on Sept. 9, with the possibility of casting a vote. The timing is designed to give McDonell a window of opportunity to thoroughly investigate what provisions could possibly be placed in the ordinance.

During Tuesday’s wide-ranging discussion at the regular meeting, the council heard from several UW-Whitewater representatives, including administrators.

Grace Crickette, vice chancellor for administrative affairs, said the university supports the city’s proposal.

“We’re doing everything we can on our campus, but we need help managing it in the community,” Crickette said.

UW-Whitewater student Will Hinz also weighed in on the proposal and said he believed it was a prudent move.

“I’m frustrated,” Hinz said of the behavior he has witnessed from some of his peers. “I think doing something is better than nothing.”

While the council has largely been in lockstep with one another on COVID-19 precautions, the elected body has fielded opposition from some residents during public commentary.

“At some point, we’re going to have to let (UW-Whitewater students) do their own thing,’ resident Neil Hicks said. “I feel it’s a waste of resources.”

Also this week, the council heard a report from City Clerk Michele Smith on the looming fall election. With the presidential race on the ballot, Smith said it could garner the largest turnout in Whitewater’s history.

While full logistical details are waiting in the wings, Smith said she is in the early stages of planning for poll worker staffing and taking steps to ensure ballots cast through early voting will be properly counted on election day.

 
 

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