What’s Next for Milwaukee’s Mask Mandate?

The current mandate is set to expire next week.

Milwaukee’s mask mandate is set to expire on Tuesday and Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson insists he won’t push for an extension of the measure.

The latest mask mandate has been in effect since Jan. 23 after a post-holiday jump in cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant. Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death rates have steadily declined. The Milwaukee Common Council could vote to extend the ordinance or simply let it expire on Tuesday.

“It is not my intention to have the mask mandate extend beyond March 1,” Johnson said in a virtual session with reporters this week. “If there’s no desire to have the council extend it, then I’m comfortable with letting it expire.”

Johnson said he is relying on the city’s health experts in guiding his decision making on COVID-19 matters.

“It’s not a political conversation,” he said.

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.

“We won’t have mitigation measures forever,” said Dr. Ben Weston, chief health policy officer for Milwaukee County. “We aren’t going to be wearing masks in public forever or distancing in public forever. Now, as the disease burden goes down, it’s time to think about how we move forward. But when we move forward it needs to be data driven. It needs to be transparent, equitable and informed by experts.”

COVID-19 cases in the city of Milwaukee fell to 83.2 cases per 100,000 residents, dropping into the substantial transmission category from high transmission. The COVID-19 metric hadn’t been in substantial transmission category since July 29, 2021.

Testing metrics fell to the moderate transmission level with a positivity rate of 5%. Earlier this month, that figure stood at 14.5%.

The number of Milwaukee adults 16 years of age and older who have received both vaccine doses stands at 63.1%, with 68.7% having received at least one dose. The number of individuals who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot stands at 44.9%.

Milwaukee County is experiencing an average of 112 new cases of COVID-19 per day, down from 517 new cases per day earlier in the month. An average of two people in the county are dying of COVID-19 per day.

“Our trends continue to decline very nicely,” Weston said. “Our positivity is finally nearing 5% and will likely cross that threshold in the next week. Hospitalizations are coming down. Deaths are declining as well. These are all good signs.”

But Weston warned that the declining metrics don’t mean that the pandemic can be declared over at this point.

“Though are numbers are receding, we’ve seen this before,” he said. “Many of us want to be done with the pandemic but the pandemic is likely not done with us. On a positive note, we are in a different place now than in the past and much of that is due to the availability of the vaccine and booster.”

Weston described the vaccine shots and booster as “our path forward out of the pandemic.”

“As we learn more about the promising effects of the vaccine against this virus, we see more and more that the COVID vaccine should really be considered a three-dose vaccine,” Weston said. “That third dose, which is commonly referred to as a booster dose, really strengthens the protection that comes from the vaccine.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.