More restrictive rules regarding acceptable face masks at Milwaukee County owned and operated facilities are being implemented as COVID-19 cases in the area surge.
Neck gaiters, bandanas, winter scarves, neck scarves, face shields, masks with valves and vents and masks with inappropriate images or writing are no longer considered acceptable face coverings, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley announced in a virtual conference on Thursday.
Religious exemptions regarding face masks will no longer be granted, Crowley added.
The restrictions are in effect for all county facilities and on Milwaukee County Transit System buses, he said.
The new restrictions don’t pertain to children ages two and under; anyone with a disability that makes it difficult to wear a face mask; those who primarily rely on lip reading; those who have been advised by a medical professional not to wear a face mask due to personal health issues; and anyone who has difficulty breathing or is incapacitated.
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After taking an “educational-based” approach concerning the enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions since the pandemic took hold seven months ago, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said that city will begin to automatically issue citations instead of warning letters to businesses that aren’t in compliance.
“We’ve seen a number of bars and other establishments that have not been cooperative,” Barrett said. “The education period is over. Now you’re either complying or you’re not complying. With the serious situation we’re in, it’s appropriate to get more serious about the enforcement.”
The moves come as the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths and hospitalization rates that have climbed to their highest level at any time during the pandemic.
“We continue to see poor trends, both in the state and locally,” said Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management. As of Thursday, 254 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Milwaukee County.
“There are no indications of a slowing of this increase,” Weston said. “There is no flattening of the curve.”
Weston warned against a growing sentiment among some people who are frustrated with pandemic restrictions and have voiced a desire to contract the virus. Weston described that thought process as a “bad idea.”
Long-term effects of COVID-19 include fatigue, chronic cough, chest pains, headaches and a loss of taste and smell.
Research has found that one in three COVID-19 patients who were surveyed two to three weeks after their diagnosis still had persistent symptoms, Weston said.
In examining other past widespread coronaviruses, particularly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), 40 percent of patients still had chronic fatigue three years after contracting the virus.
“We just don’t know enough at this point about COVID-19 to know the long-term and lingering effects, even among the most-healthy among us.”
Weston also warned that people in a pre-symptomatic period can unwittingly spread the disease.
“Despite all of our COVID fatigue, we must remain vigilant,” Weston said.
Greenfield Health Director Darren Rausch echoed concerns about what he described as an especially troubling wave of the pandemic.
“Milwaukee County is currently in the midst of the third and most significant period of COVID-19 disease over the last seven months of the pandemic,” Rausch said. “We know that pandemics occur in waves and to date this current third wave has given us the highest seven-day average numbers for both the city of Milwaukee and the suburban communities.”
Barrett provided an update of the new community COVID-19 testing site at Miller Park, which opened on Monday after the closure of free National Guard testing sites at Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education on the North Side and UMOS on the South Side.
About 85 employees, mainly National Guard members, are working with and training local employees as the Guard winds down its presence in Milwaukee, Barrett said.
Nearly 1,700 people were tested at Miller Park on Wednesday, Barrett said. He added that he is concerned by the increasing positivity rate, which stands at about 11 percent, more than twice what it was one month ago.
“The problem is getting more severe here,” he said.
Barrett also announced that funds from the second round of the Milwaukee Restart program are set to be distributed to small businesses in the city. About 970 businesses applied for grants of as much as $25,000 to offset costs tied to the pandemic.
“These are the small businesses that we claim to love, and this is where we have to show our love,” Barrett said.
Applicants include restaurants and cafés, professional services, hair braiding businesses, salons, art galleries, barber shops, bowling alleys, small breweries, a guitar shop, a tortilla manufacturer and food trucks, among other operations, Barrett said.
So far, funding for about one-third of the applicants has been approved and those businesses could begin receiving money next week, he said.
Crowley added that the county has received an additional $1.2 million in funding to develop a public health and safety team that will focus on addressing trends concerning increasing drug overdoses and levels of substance abuse.
“We’ve seen a rise in opioid use and substance abuse as people coping with feelings of isolation and stress do the pandemic,” Crowley said.