Dane County institutes mask requirement

    Older man wearing a face mask -- picture in black and white
    Face mask image by rottonara from Pixabay

    An order from Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) will require everyone ages five and older to wear a mask in enclosed spaces in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

    The order will go into effect July 13 at 8 a.m. and will apply to the entire county. 

    “Public health research now shows that face coverings are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19,” PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich said in a statement. “Given the current number of COVID-19 infections in our county, we need to all be wearing face coverings every time we leave the house.” 

    Face masks must cover the mouth and nose, according to the order, and will be required to be worn in businesses, health care settings, waiting in line, and on public transportation. The order also requires people to wear masks when in someone else’s home. 

    The order states that not wearing a mask is a violation of Madison and Dane County ordinances, but does not say what kind of penalty, if any, would be involved. 

    At a news conference Tuesday, Heinrich said that enforcement of the order will be mostly through complaints and hopefully people will comply after receiving education from PHMDC. Though she did say that the citation process is “still a tool.” 

    There are some exceptions to the mask requirement. Children younger than five are encouraged but not required to wear a mask; individuals with a medical condition, mental health condition, or disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering and individuals for which wearing a face mask would be a work hazard are exempted. 

    “While the majority of people are able to wear cloth face coverings, some people may not be able to due to a medical condition, mental condition, or disability,” the order states. “Additionally, some people of color in the U.S. have experienced harassment and racism due to wearing a face covering in public. The following Order should not be used as justification to harass or harm another person who is either wearing or not wearing a face covering. People should assume others have valid reasons for wearing or not wearing a face covering.”

    People can remove their masks when eating or drinking, communicating with someone who is deaf or confirming their identity. 

    The mask requirement comes as Dane County has seen a large spike in new COVID-19 infections. The seven-day period from June 27 to July 3 had the highest average number of new cases ever for the county. 

    “Science keeps informing our response to this virus,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “The recent spike in cases showed that asymptomatic cases were on the rise in Dane County and so was community spread with no known source of infection. If people are sick and don’t know it, mandatory masking protects all of us.”

    The mask requirement is a change from the previously stated position of PHMDC. An earlier memo from the department outlined why it was recommending but not requiring masks. 

    The memo cited concerns for people with disabilities and health problems, racial profiling, unintended consequences such as loss of wages or access to grocery stores and problems with enforcement. 

    “Any decision to require cloth face coverings should be done with consideration of these potential harms along with weighing the benefits related to transmission of the virus,” the memo stated. 

    Medical grade surgical masks or N95 masks are not required, the order states, and the county will be working to provide masks to people who cannot buy or make their own, according to a news release.

    Wisconsin is one of 18 states without a statewide mask requirement and the state Supreme Court ruling that overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order severely limits the ability to implement a statewide rule. 

    “I would hope it would,” Heinrich said at Tuesday’s news conference when asked if the mask mandate could withstand a legal challenge.

    Milwaukee County has instituted a mask requirement for all county-owned buildings and property and other municipalities, including the City of Milwaukee, have said they’re considering a mask mandate. 

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.