Milwaukee Leaders Discuss Attacks, Death Threats in Latest COVID Briefing

In an emotional COVID-19 update, local leaders talked about how they will respond to threats and attacks.

Milwaukee Health Department inspectors will now be escorted by police officers each time they visit a site as part of their enforcement duties.

The move comes after inspectors who visited Serb Hall during a rally on Saturday were verbally and physically accosted by some attendees, according to city officials. Inspectors also received death threats through the city’s website after they attempted to enforce public health orders aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“The Milwaukee Police Department has come to the table willing to assist us, understanding the severity of the situation but also understanding the necessity of the work,” Marlaina Jackson, interim commissioner of the Milwaukee Health Department, said during a virtual session with reporters on Tuesday.

More than 500 people, mostly supporters of President Donald Trump, attended a “Defend Your Vote” rally at Serb Hall on Milwaukee’s South Side.

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Jackson said the Health Department became aware of the rally in advance and had discussions with Serb Hall management about what was expected of the venue as the city has stepped up enforcement of health orders.

“We were very clear that masks, social distancing, crowd size and seating were all required to be a part of Serb Hall’s compliance,” Jackson said.

When inspectors arrived at the site on Saturday it became “immediately clear that the requirements were not being followed,” she said.

“As the inspectors attempted to document the violations, they were pushed and harassed, including some very offensive language,” Jackson said. “I am absolutely appalled when I hear that our inspectors are met with abuse. I am disheartened that our inspectors receive death threats for doing the work that they feel they are committed to do.”

Inspectors had to enter the facility on West Oklahoma Avenue to find a manger, who then addressed the crowd and shut down the event while also being subjected to taunts and physical contact from a few attendees.

The situation at Serb Hall wasn’t the first time inspectors have encountered trouble while attempting to enforce health orders during the pandemic, Jackson said.

“Throughout this process our inspectors have been verbally abused,” she said. “They have definitely had to have some difficult conversations.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city “bent over backwards” to accommodate the rally at Serb Hall.

Inspectors found “lots of problems” when they arrived at the site before being confronted by some in the crowd.

“We do not tolerate that,” Barrett said. “These are individuals who are out there trying to preserve the health and safety of our residents. To have other individuals accost them, whether it was verbally or physically, is not acceptable.”

Having police protection has become necessary to ensure the inspectors’ safety, Barrett said.

“That is a prime concern of mine,” he said. “No one can expect our employees, who are there to serve the public, to put themselves in harm’s way because someone has an axe to grind about wearing a mask or social distancing. It’s not acceptable and it’s not acceptable for businesses to tolerate that or to turn a blind eye or to not be there to monitor their premises.”

Final plans are being worked out between MPD and the Health Department. Barrett spokeswoman Jodie Tabak said details about how many officers would accompany each inspector or inspection team wouldn’t be publicly shared.

Jackson said an investigation continues into tracking down the person or people who sent the death threat.

Barrett also announced during the briefing that the community COVID-19 testing site at Miller Park will add Saturday hours beginning this week. The site will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Saturday.

Long lines continue at Miller Park as the demand for COVID-19 testing remains strong. On Monday, more than 2,500 people were tested at the ballpark location.

“We hope that this added day will alleviate the high demand for testing we’ve been seeing on Mondays and provide the opportunity to get tested for those who do not have time during the week due to work conflicts or childcare conflicts,” Barrett said.

An additional 630 people got tested at a free community site on the Northwest side and 569 at a South Side location on Monday

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.