Milwaukee committee moves forward with city-wide mask mandate, full committee to vote Jan. 18

Mask requirement would be based on COVID-19 transmission rates

A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store 
A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store Monday, July 19, 2021, in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Los Angeles County has reinstated an indoor mask mandate due to rising COVID-19 cases. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

At the urging of Milwaukee Public Schools and area restaurants, a Milwaukee Common Council committee moved forward an ordinance Friday for a city-wide mask mandate.

Under the plan, a face covering would be required for anyone 3 years old and up inside a public building whenever the rate of transmission of the COVID-19 virus is equal to or greater than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents in Milwaukee County as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Milwaukee has repeatedly hit that mark since the omicron variant reached the city around Thanksgiving.

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On Friday, Milwaukee had more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people and more than 38 percent of people tested for the virus were positive, said city Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson.

The Public Health and Safety Committee voted 3-2 on the ordinance with two members of the committee, Scott Spiker and Mark Borkowski abstaining, saying they were being expected to make a decision before the details were worked out.

“It seems like we’re rushing into a decision without really knowing what the Sam Heck we’re doing, just to do something whether it makes sense or not,” Borkowski said. “If people are hellbent on voting for this, fine, but if this thing is evolving or whatever — I’ll be interested to see what this looks like at full council.”

One of the issues raised with the ordinance is enforcement.

Johnson told committee members her already short-staffed health department will not be fining businesses that don’t comply with mask mandate.

“Currently all of our staff are working at testing sites and doing contact tracing, so we have no capacity,” Johnson said. “We are losing staff because of how difficult it is to enforce mask mandates.”

Ordinance sponsor Alder JoCasta Zamarripa and co-sponsor Alder Marina Dimitrijevic said they believe even without strict enforcement, the mask mandate will be followed. Dimitrijevic said business owners will also feel more confident asking people to mask up with a sign on their door saying it’s a city ordinance.

During several hours of discussion, council members suggested ways to enforce the ordinance or finding additional monetary resources to further educate the public about the necessity of masks.

The full Common Council is scheduled to vote on the measure Jan. 18.

About a dozen members from the community spoke about the measure, mostly in favor.

Milwaukee School Board President Bob Peterson urged the city to pass the mask mandate.

“We know that spread is having a big effect on children even though it doesn’t make people seriously ill, having a lot of children exposed to it, they become people who give it to their elderly grandparents,” Peterson said. “Also a lot of our staff is getting it, and that presents a problem for us running our schools in person.”

On Thursday night, the School Board voted to extend virtual learning another week, with plans to resume in-person learning Jan. 18. Students have been virtual since the first of the year because so many staff members are out with COVID-19 or quarantined due to exposure.

According to the state Department of Health Services, only 13.2 percent of Milwaukeeans age 5 to 12 have received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Owners of restaurants told council members stories of being afraid of keeping their doors open because staff and customers were getting sick.

A.J. Dixon, who owns Lazy Susan in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, said she’s decided to close for a month.

“I just can’t deal with the stress of nothing being done anymore in terms of the health and safety of other people,” Dixon said. “I am a firm believer that keeping my staff safe is going to keep my customers safe. I fully support a mask mandate.”