Milwaukee’s Mask Mandate Is Back

This time, without plans for enforcement.

The Milwaukee Common Council approved a citywide mask mandate on Tuesday for anyone age 3 and older. The mandate runs through March 1, at which time the council could vote to extend the ordinance or simply let it expire.

The legislation does not include any fines for non-compliant businesses and won’t be directly enforced due to a lack of staff, city officials said.

“We frankly are really limited in our staff,” Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said in a virtual session with reporters on Tuesday afternoon. “We’re heavily focused on testing and vaccination efforts and so at this time we do not have the capacity to enforce it. We are going to be collecting information as calls come in but that is the most that we can do right now.”

A late amendment to the ordinance removed financial penalties. A prior version called for a $500 fine for business owners found to be in violation of the law.

“It’s not a priority,” Mayor Cavalier Johnson said of enforcing the mask mandate. “The thing we should be focusing on is education and pushing people to get vaccinated. Masks are fine for indoors. However, if we are going to beat this, folks need to get vaccinated.”


 

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Cavalier Johnson continued to stress the need for adults and children in the city and surrounding communities to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I’m not interested in the Health Department being punitive toward businesses or being punitive toward individuals,” he said. “What I’d like to see is education and a push toward vaccination.”

The amended ordinance does provide for violations of the mask requirement to be noted in the license renewal applications of businesses, but even enforcing that provision isn’t high on the Health Department’s priority list.

“It would take quite a few staff and we’d have to put together an entire process to address this,” Kirsten Johnson said. “Our messaging all along is that we have got to get more people vaccinated and that’s where we should be putting our efforts.”

Nonetheless, she’s urging businesses to comply with the ordinance on their own.

“We are hopeful that businesses will be asking their patrons to mask,” she said.

One council member called the stripped-down ordinance, absent an enforcement mechanism to support it, as nothing more than a “paper tiger.”The city has had a mask advisory in place since Nov. 30.

“Our position on the importance of masking has not changed. It is important that everyone is masked indoors in public,” Kirsten Johnson said.

Cavalier Johnson said he plans to sign the ordinance when it gets to his desk and that the legislation will go into effect “over the next few days.”

“I believe what’s been passed is reasonable,” he said. “The duration is limited. It strongly enforces what I have been saying all along, which is to wear a mask.”

Under the ordinance, anyone age 3 or older is required to wear a mask or face covering when inside any building that is open to the public. Exceptions include when actively eating or drinking, receiving dental or medical services, or actively engaging in a sport.

Kirsten Johnson urged the use of N95 and K95 masks, which are of higher quality and can be reused.The city distributed one million N95 masks over the course of the last week, with an additional 300,000 set to be supplied to schools. The Health Department has exhausted its supply of masks and will no longer be providing them to the public.

As of Tuesday, 67% of city residents age 16 and older had received a first vaccine shot and 61.6% had received both shots. About 39% of residents had received the two initial shots and a booster.

The COVID-19 metrics for the city of Milwaukee remain in the “extreme transmission” category, with 1,379 cases per 100,000 residents. Testing metrics also remain at the extreme level, with a positivity rate of 28.3%.

Milwaukee County is experiencing an average of 1,362 new cases of COVID-19 per day, along with six daily deaths, according to the latest figures.

Health officials pointed out that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services recently completed an update of its data management system to handle the current surge in cases tied to the Omicron variant. As a result, the DHS expects COVID-19 data to be temporarily elevated over the next few days as backlogged cases are entered.

Milwaukee County is showing a downtrend in positive cases being reported, but that’s accompanied by a downtrend in the amount of testing, Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services in the county’s Office of Emergency Management said.

“It ends up being that our best metric is positivity, which while still extremely high is on the decline,” he said.

Hospitalizations from COVID-19, while showing some signs of stabilization, remain at critically high capacity and continue to put a sever strain on health systems, Weston added.Data shows that the current surge tied the Omicron variant is likely near its peak, he said.

“But at the moment, we still remain at a time of critical transmission, critical disease burden and critical health system capacity,” he said.

Kirsten Johnson stressed the ongoing need for COVID-19 testing. Lines at testing sites have declined since a surge around the holidays, she said.

“During the peak holiday demand, the Milwaukee Health Department was administering on average 1,500 tests per day. That has decreased to around 800 tests,” she said. Johnson pointed out that free COVID-19 tests can now be ordered online at covidtests.gov. There is a limit of four rapid antigen tests per households. Tests are expected to be shipped within seven to 12 days after being ordered.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.