Why abolishing the state mask mandate could be bad for business

By: - February 1, 2021 7:00 am
masked shopper

A masked shopper examines products in a retail store. (Photo by Atoms via Unsplash)

Robin Janson’s business has a simple rule for customers and employees: Wear a mask. “No mask? No exceptions,” is how she sums it up.

Janson is the president of Urban Evolutions, an Appleton manufacturer of furniture and wall paneling made from reclaimed wood. The 24-year-old business has a showroom and retail store where it enforces the mask requirement to keep customers and employees safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the statewide mask mandate went into effect, we felt like the state had our back,” Janson says. “We have tried hard and been successful in keeping our retail staff safe. Requiring masks or face shields has been a simple and effective tool.”

So she was happy when the state Assembly abruptly set aside plans Thursday (Jan. 28) to cast a vote that, in all probability, would have immediately ended Gov. Tony Evers’ current emergency declaration and the mask order that accompanies it.

“I am relieved to hear that, for now, the statewide mask order is in place,” Janson says. “We will take this bit of good news!”

More than 50 organizations have registered to lobby against the Senate resolution to end the current COVID-19 health emergency and mask order that Evers declared Jan. 19. The Wisconsin Ethics Commission has not listed any organizations lobbying in support of the measure, which Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) authored and the Senate voted 18-13 to pass on Jan. 26.

The legislation stalled Thursday after lawmakers learned that ending the health emergency could cost the state nearly $50 million in FoodShare dollars tied to the declaration. Republicans in the Legislature are seeking a workaround that will let the Assembly pass the resolution — which would take effect without Evers’ signature.

Most support for the mask order has come from organizations involved in health care — individual institutions, such as the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, as well as health care professional and trade associations such as the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

And while many organized business interests have stayed on the sidelines, some have spoken up.  

“Face coverings are a scientifically proven mitigation strategy that protects public health and, importantly, builds public confidence that businesses can be frequented safely,” stated the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce when registering its opposition to the resolution.

The Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry has also registered its opposition to the legislation.

Entertainment venues step in

Although not among the organizations employing a lobbyist on the issue, the Pabst Theater Group has also come out forcefully in support of the mask requirement.

Pabst operates several Milwaukee entertainment venues and spearheaded the formation of the National Independent Venue Association to seek federal pandemic relief for entertainment presenters that have been shut down since the coronavirus began spreading nearly a year ago. Pabst Theater Group helped organize support for a Milwaukee mask ordinance that took effect weeks before the first statewide mask order.

“That mask rule has helped Milwaukee to keep COVID in check,” the Pabst  management stated in an email message it sent to supporters the day before the state Senate vote.

Preserving the requirement and curbing the spread of the virus could pave the way for the entertainment sector to return more quickly, the message declared. It appealed to supporters to contact their lawmakers and urge them to “vote against any legislation to repeal the mask requirement,” adding: “We just want to open our doors again.”

UW-Madison economist Steven Deller (UW-Madison photo)

University of Wisconsin-Madison economist Steven Deller says that research on business activity in the pandemic has shown that one of the most important influences is consumer confidence: “Do people feel safe going out?”

“If you take away the mask mandate, I think that people are going to feel less safe,” Deller adds. “They’ll feel more at risk of being exposed, and I think it’s going to hurt business.”

Chad Cotti, UW-Oshkosh (Photo courtesy of Chad Cotti)

Look on social media and it’s not hard to find people who make a point of staying away from businesses where customers don’t comply well with mask rules. Chad Cotti, who chairs the economics department at UW-Oshkosh, says that among those consumers, “any reduced mask compliance that could or would result from the change in policy could harm local businesses in favor of online vendors.”

The appearance of COVID-19 variants that appear to be transmitted more easily only heightens that risk, says Cotti, who is also a research fellow at the UW-Madison’s Center for Demography of Health and Aging.

“Massive spikes in transmission would reduce consumer confidence, particularly shopping locally,” he says. “So, with businesses and the economy in mind, we should be messaging the importance of mask wearing while in public, rather than the opposite.”

Sending a message

The mandate — and the state’s involvement in combating the pandemic — also makes it easier for business owners to enforce mask wearing, Cotti adds.

Robin Janson has seen that first-hand at Urban Evolutions.

Most customers have appreciated and cooperated with the store’s mask requirement, she says, but a few take offense. Still, the store’s rule stays firm.

“Having that state mandate taps back some of those people who can be belligerent,” Janson says.  

The mandate also helped create a more even playing field, she adds, as similar businesses began requiring masks on their premises more consistently. “To take that away is a concern.”

In addition to requiring masks or face shields, Urban Evolutions has installed clear barriers to further protect workers and customers.

“People know it’s safe,” Janson says. “We know our employees are safe.”

Of the 30 employees at Urban Evolutions, only one or two at a time work in the retail area. “It would be pretty devastating if any one of them got sick,” she says.

Cotti says that the requirement shows that the state is engaged in dealing with the pandemic. That helps influence individual people to make “minor alterations” in their choices to reduce the spread of the virus, he says, “which collectively make a significant difference in transmission rates.”

Vaccinations are becoming more widespread, and the rate of new COVID-19 cases have been falling, he points out.

“Now is the time to be patient for another 60-75 days,” Cotti says. “Let’s be certain that we don’t suffer a meaningful setback, and instead continue forward to maximize the chances that business owners in Wisconsin can see something close to a more normal spring or summer.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

MORE FROM AUTHOR