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Oregon dance studio cited for holiday performance joins lawsuit against health department

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OREGON (WKOW) -- Online court records show A Leap Above Dance in Oregon has joined a lawsuit against Madison & Dane County Public Health, challenging the county's order on indoor gathering limits.

This comes after a 119-count complaint was filed against the dance studio.

On the Facebook page of A Leap Above Dance, there are photos of children from the production of "The Nutcracker".  The event occurred on Dec. 13.

The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 20 by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, challenges the health department's indoor gatherings order.

This lawsuit is substantially similar to an original action WILL filed with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in November 2020. The Court voted not to grant WILL’s original action, 4-3, without addressing the merits of the case, but four Justices indicated the claims had substantial merit.

According to WILL, the sports restrictions, in particular, illustrate why a single, unelected official should not be permitted to rule by decree indefinitely. Sports are vital to the physical, mental, emotional, and social health of Dane County’s youth, and recent research from UW-Madison indicates sports do not meaningfully spread COVID.

Authorities say the dance studio had been informed the planned performance violated the gathering limit.

"We weren't aware the performance was going to happen," said Assistant Madison City Attorney Marci Paulsen in an interview with 27 News last week. "We assumed our message would be followed."

Paulsen says complaints about the studio's operation prompted that notification. Paulsen says scheduling issues and the lack of any complaints about the failure of people to wear masks were part of the decision by staff at Public Health Madison Dane County to elect not to make an on-site visit before the scheduled performance.

"I can tell you at that time...there was no exception for ten individuals, no gathering of any individuals were allowed," Paulsen says.  "We issued this order right before Thanksgiving because of the huge spike in (COVID-19 positive) numbers we saw.  We didn't want any gathering of any individuals."

The owner of A Leap Above, Natalie Nemeckay, says the Nutcracker was filmed as a production, in segments, with small groups. Families were able to watch the performance online as it was happening.

"We had it on Facebook Live, we weren't hiding that we were doing it because we felt that we were okay to do this," said Nemeckay.

Nemeckay tells 27 News her studio is categorized by the IRS as a fine arts school. She says the county did not clarify the restrictions A Leap Above should fall under.

"I thought that we were more of a youth program or unregulated youth program," Nemeckay continued. "I know that some other dance studios in the area have been reaching out and trying to figure out where they classify, and they've been kind of confused about it."

Paulsen tells 27 News dance has always been considered a sport under public health orders.

"I am aware that in the past dance studios have tried to argue that they are not sports, that they shouldn't be under the sports definition," Paulsen says.  "But Public Health in all those communications has always indicated it is a sport."

"Just like hockey and basketball," Paulsen says of the dance studios inclusion in the category.

If dance studios were not considered sports at the time of the event, there are other categories used by Public Health that would have allowed for a gathering of limited size.

Since the controversial event, the public health order has been relaxed to allow for sports activities to include up to ten participants as long as they are socially distanced and face coverings are used.

If found responsible for all the counts in the civil complaint, the dance studio could face thousands of dollars in fines.

Matthew Cash

Senior Executive Producer

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