Milwaukee To Debate Mandatory Mask Wearing At Some Public Locations

Jul 1, 2020

Milwaukee may be on the way to requiring people to wear masks in indoor public spaces, including bars and restaurants. But early Wednesday, the city also relaxed more COVID-19 restrictions on some of its businesses.

The mask idea may have partly started with local restaurant chain owner Paul Bartolotta. A couple weeks ago, he told a business webcast about talking by phone with a food supplier in Italy this spring:

"And he walked out to the garden, one of my guys, and he said, 'What do you hear?' Bartolotta:  'Like birds chirping?'  Man:  'No, listen.'  Bartolotta: 'I hear sirens.' Man:  'Yeah, dying or dead."

Bartolotta says a series of what he calls apocalyptic stories about European deaths from COVID-19 convinced him of the threat of the coronavirus. He says subsequent talks with U.S. physicians have him focused on a way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 here.    

"I listened to [Medical College of Wisconsin] Dr. [John] Raymond, I listened to the other physicians, and they say, 'Masks!' " Bartolotta said.

This week, Bartolotta Restaurants joined Fiserv Forum, Colectivo Coffee, Pabst Theater Group — in all, more than 70 Milwaukee businesses — in asking Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council to require that patrons and public workers in some public spaces wear masks. Those spaces include stores, theaters, museums — and restaurants and bars while not consuming food and beverages.  

Barrett said Tuesday that he and the Milwaukee city attorney and Milwaukee Health Department are looking closely at such a policy.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and his wife, Kris, voted April 4 at the Washington Park Library. A poll worker wore a mask.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"In particular for restaurants, retail establishments, places you cannot socially distance at a 6-foot area. One of the concerns we have is making sure we have the legal requirements for such an ordinance," Barrett said.  

Barrett says the city of Racine has tried to require the wearing of masks, but a judge hearing a business owner's lawsuit is so far blocking the requirement because it came from the Racine Health Department. Barrett says Milwaukee is not looking for an extended court case.   

"We have made a decision that we're going to do it through our normal legislative processes. Which means there will be a hearing this Thursday before the Public Health and Safety Committee of the Common Council, where the chairwoman, Marina Dimitrijevic, is working with us on a policy that would go through the Common Council,” Barrett said.

The full council could vote on the mask requirement on July 7.

While Barrett hopes more masks will slow the spread of COVID-19 in Milwaukee, there's evidence the disease is still growing here and in much of Wisconsin. Statewide, about 600 new confirmed cases were reported Tuesday, the second-highest one-day total since the pandemic began.  

Dr. Raymond, who is also president and CEO at the Medical College, says he's worried about a rise in the percentage of people who test positive for COVID-19.

"Recently, the trend for positive tests had been going down, both in Wisconsin and in Milwaukee. Though over the last week, we've seen an upward trend in the percentage of positive tests. That's something important to note,” Raymond told a webcast Tuesday morning.

But early Wednesday, the city moved to the next level of relaxed health restrictions. Under so-called Phase 4, bars and restaurants will be allowed to open at 50% capacity instead of 25%. Summer camps and daycare facilities can also expand.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik wears a mask during Tuesday's city council meeting.
Credit Screenshot / City of Milwaukee

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik says the change is reasonable.

"Going to Phase 4 doesn't mean we're gangbusters and everything is open, like Texas or some of these other areas that just threw anything out of the window. We're not doing that here," Kowalik said.

Texas broke a new state record Tuesday with nearly 7,000 new COVID-19 cases.

Kowalik says her department will step up its enforcement of local restrictions, beginning with discussions at establishments. She says her agency “has not been the mask police.”