Milwaukee Takes First Steps To Mandate Masks City-Wide

Ordinance Could Include All Public Places And Large Outdoor Gatherings

People shopping with masks on
Customers wear masks and keep social distancing guidelines as they shop at Trader Joe’s store in Los Angeles Thursday, May 14, 2020. Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo

Milwaukee could become the first city in Wisconsin to enforce a mandatory mask policy. Common Council members began discussing an ordinance that could require people to wear masks in public places, and in many situations, outdoors to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Wisconsin is one of only three states that does not have a mask policy. Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik said she would like to have an ordinance in place before the Common Council is on its August recess.

“I want to make sure we are salvaging some of the gains that we have been able to make,” Kowalik said.

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As of July 2, Milwaukee County had 11,553 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 355 coronavirus-related deaths, according to county health department records.

The city’s Public Safety and Health Committee discussed a mask policy for more than two hours Thursday morning, with several other alders weighing in. While there was a consensus that a mask policy would be acceptable for indoor public places, there was concern about mandating masks outdoors.

Alder Mark Borkowski said while everyone recognizes the severity of the pandemic, the impromptu protests and large gatherings across the city for basketball games and beach parties would be impossible to enforce.

“It’s like herding cats,” Borkowski said. “I don’t want this to be so impossible that we’re trying to do this good thing, but in the back of our minds we know it’s not doable. When are we going to say to people, ‘OK, you’re selfish, but you are also intelligent. This is your choice.’”

Some alders also raised concerns that people living in Milwaukee’s central city don’t have masks or other personal protective equipment, and that enforcing a mandatory rule would be unfair.

Since mid-March, the Milwaukee Health Department has distributed about 12,000 masks, Kowalik said.

“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse. I think we need to make more of an effort to get more PPE before we enforce an ordinance of this nature,” said Alder Khalif Rainey. “Not just to protect the public from the fines, but if we are truly dedicated to making the community safer, I would think this would be a number one priority of ours.”

Alder Marina Dimitrijevic, who is still drafting the final ordinance, said she wants the mask mandate to be something that will be “compliance driven.”

Dimitrijevic is modeling her ordinance after what was approved in the city of Los Angeles. There, residents are required to wear a mask at all times, even outdoors.

The Milwaukee Health Department would enforce the ordinance with a fine up to $500.

Those fines would be given on a tier system, Dimitrijevic said. She envisions large businesses repeatedly violating the ordinance being given the largest fine.

“Science shows clearly that face masks are the easiest way, when combined with hand washing and social distancing, to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” she said.

Dimitrijevic’s ordinance will be introduced Tuesday then referred back to committee.

Public Reaction

Earlier this week, a group of about 140 Milwaukee business owners including restaurants and theaters sent a letter to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and council president Cavalier Johnson.

An online petition has also been started, asking leaders to implement the rule. It had 9,930 signatures Thursday afternoon.

As of Thursday morning, the council had also received 359 comments — 203 in support and 145 opposed — regarding mandatory masks.

Some of the comments include:

Cheryl Mealey: strongly oppose! Masks do little to nothing to stop the spread, and can do harm. Some legitimately cannot wear them and they are shamed & tormented. Masks have become a twisted social badge of honor that supposedly shows you care about others and has inflamed divisiveness. The vast majority of people I see wearing masks do so incorrectly with nose & often mouth out. This does zero good. They give a false sense of security. Hand washing is the best protection. Focus on good health & building immune system. Please DO NOT force this on people. Thank you!

Ben Looney: There is so much scientific evidence out there that shows masks help. A simple thing we can do to protect employees is require people to wear masks. We cannot expect business owners to protect their employees. If we take this simple step now and require masks we can start doing more things sooner.

Perla Jimenez: 100% approve this measure as time has proven that people will not have personal responsibility unless is mandated. This is a health emergency and until there is evidence that people will be responsible I would agree that we need some sort of mandate as this is not an infringement of anyone’s rights. If people want to counterattack this mandate I would think a face mask would be similar to clothing as I believe people are not allowed to be naked in the streets.

Andrew Smith: There is a lot of evidence that the commonly available masks for the public are useless, even harmful. I have no intention of wearing one giving the ambiguity of the issue.