Fines Could Dramatically Increase For Businesses That Violate COVID Health Orders

Milwaukee leaders feel raising the fines could send a stronger message.

Milwaukee’s Health Department wants to raise fines for businesses that violate health orders aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

The move comes as COVID-19 cases surge in the city.

The city’s Public Safety and Health Committee has unanimously approved a Health Department recommendation to increase fines to between $500 and $5,000 per violation. The maximum accumulated fine would be $20,000 in a single action, in which businesses could be fined for multiple violations for not complying with social distancing requirements, capacity limits or the wearing of masks.

The current fine is $500.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett supports boosting fines, which he said would send a stronger message to non-compliant businesses.

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“There is no question we have to raise the fine,” Barrett said in a virtual session with local health officials and reporters on Thursday. “We’ve heard reports of operators who have said they have a $5,000 or $6,000 event coming up and if the fine is $500, they’ll just tack that on to the cost. That’s not what we are trying to do. We are trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, whether you are a bartender who doesn’t wear or a mask or a patron who doesn’t abide by the directive that you remain seated and keep a mask on unless you are eating or drinking.”

The troubling spike in COVID-19 cases has made it clear that more dramatic steps are needed, Barrett said.

“Short of closing these operations down, raising the fine is an effective way of dealing with it. We’ll see if it works,” he said.

Barrett also noted that residents continue to flock to community testing sites as cases rise. On Wednesday, nearly 2,500 people were tested at the Miller Park site, which initially had been pegged to have a daily capacity of 2,000.

“It was busting at the seams,” Barrett said of the facility. “That tells you how strong demand has been.”

The high testing numbers continue to be reflective of a “surging pandemic here in the city of Milwaukee and throughout the state of Wisconsin,” Barrett said.

Two other community sites on the city’s Northwest and South sides were closed on Wednesday in observance of Veterans Day.

Even so, more than 10,000 people have been tested at community sites in Milwaukee since the start of the week, according to Barrett.

Milwaukee County, along with the city, continues to experience dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases.

“As we set new records for cases, hospitalizations and deaths week after week, we can see very clearly that our situation is worsening,” Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Ben Weston said.

The city of Milwaukee is experiencing seven-day averages for COVID-19 cases that are nearly two and a half times higher than the previous peak in May, while Milwaukee suburbs have seen seven-day averages that are four times greater than a mid-July peak, Greenfield Health Director Darren Rausch said.

“We are continuing on a sharply increasing trajectory of disease over the past several weeks and we continue to set very dubious marks in terms of COVID-19 data both in Milwaukee County and throughout the state,” Rausch said.

Deaths from COVID-19 are rising at “significant” rates in the suburbs, primarily in older and more vulnerable populations, he said.

Barrett said the state needs “unified leadership” to successfully mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Obviously, Gov. (Tony) Evers has attempted to lead this effort but has been thwarted time and time again by the Legislature and by the courts,” Barrett said.

A special session of the Legislature should be held to decide what steps are needed in areas like mask wearing and stay-at-home orders, he said.

“The Republicans in the Legislature have decided that the best course of action is to do absolutely nothing,” Barrett said. “We now know that doing absolutely nothing has been a total disaster. More people are getting sick, more people are getting hospitalized and more people are dying.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.