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Wisconsin Counties, Cities Face 'Difficult' Mask Decisions

Michelle Maternowski
A sign at Metcalfe's Market in Wauwatosa let’s people know that masks are required inside the business. Scientists estimate that near-universal mask use could make a major difference in bringing down coronavirus infections in the United States.";

Wisconsin’s cities and counties are struggling with whether and how to enact local mask mandates in the absence of a statewide order, members of the state’s business community were told Wednesday.

Without a uniform mask law, Wisconsin cities and counties are left to decide on their own what to do. That has caused them many problems, leaders of groups representing cities, villages and counties told members of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on a telephone meeting Wednesday.

An “overwhelming majority” of Wisconsin cities have “no intention of adopting a mask mandate,” said Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. That’s based on a survey the group did as well as a general sense from conversations with local leaders, he said.

Cities are looking for some kind of uniformity statewide, Deschane said.

“Cities see people getting sick, they’re getting these reports daily on people being hospitalized, dying and all the rest,” he said. “They feel a great sense of frustration but they don’t necessarily have the tools to act. ... We are all in a boat that none of us wanted to be in together but we have to figure this out.”

A number of Wisconsin’s larger counties and cities have enacted their own mask orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while Gov. Tony Evers has said he is considering whether to join a majority of other states with a mandate that applies everywhere. Evers has said he’s reluctant to act after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down his “safer at home” order, while others have said he still has the legal authority to declare a health emergency and mandate the wearing of masks.

>>Evers Urges Mask Wearing As COVID-19 Cases Remain High

The Republican-controlled Legislature also has the authority to enact a statewide rule for masks, but GOP leaders have said they’re not interested in a mandate.

“I think wearing a mask should be voluntary and many people are already doing it,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said. Evers and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Health officials around the world have said wearing masks is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is highly contagious. Thirty-two states have enacted some form of statewide mask mandate. Polls have shown broad support for wearing masks to help fight the virus.

There are mask mandates in place in Milwaukee and Dane counties covering Wisconsin’s largest cities of Milwaukee and Madison. Numerous other cities, including Green Bay, Racine, Superior and Whitewater have enacted mask ordinances. Appleton this week recommended people to wear masks, but did not mandate it.

“It has been difficult,” said Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association. “We have a patchwork approach to it right now and that is what we’re going to have for the foreseeable future.”

Counties are trying to come up with their own approach to combating the virus, trying to find plans that are practical, workable and enforceable, he said.

“We’re hearing both ends of the spectrum,” O’Connell said. “There is no clear consensus on what counties are thinking. It is all over the board.”

Wisconsin has had more than 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 906 deaths as of Tuesday. That death count is the 28th highest in the country overall and the 35th highest per capita at nearly 16 deaths per 100,000 people. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 99, an increase of 13%.

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