Milwaukee becomes state’s largest city with mandate for masks to prevent COVID-19 spread

    An array of face masks for COVID-19
    Masks sewn by Jan Ruvido Stebbins | Laina G. Stebbins via Michigan Advance

    A citywide ordinance requiring people in public places to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 passed the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously Monday afternoon, with the support of business groups in the city while a statewide business lobby registered objections.

    The ordinance requires anyone 3 years old or older in the city to have a face covering when they leave home and to wear it in any building open to the public and to wear it in outdoor public spaces if they are less than 6 feet apart from non-family members.

    Other communities around the state have also begun considering requiring masks, either by ordinance or other means, but Milwaukee is the largest city to date to do so. Dane County implemented a mask order effective Monday.

    The Milwaukee law is to remain in effect as long as the city’s “Moving Milwaukee Forward” COVID-19 health orders are in effect. It was introduced by Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic.

    “The science is absolutely clear that wearing face coverings when you’re outside of your house, combined with handwashing and social distancing … is a way to prevent the spread of Covid 19,” Dimitrijevic said before the vote on Monday at a special council meeting that was conducted online.

    Recently elected Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa, who is also finishing out a term in the state Assembly, observed that Gov. Tony Evers has had his “hands tied” by Republican legislators and the state Supreme Court ruling on May 13 that threw out Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order.

    The law authorizes building owners and operators to refuse entry to anyone who tries to enter without a mask and requires them to ensure everyone in their buildings is following the law, or face a fine of $50 to $500. The order would be enforced by the city health department, not by police, according to Mayor Tom Barrett, who has said he would sign the measure promptly. Urban Milwaukee reported that the measure could take effect before the weekend, according to city officials.

    A coalition of 80 business owners and other organizations, including representatives of the hospitality industry, Marquette University and the Fiserv Forum basketball and concert arena and the Pabst Theater Group, joined in a letter to Barrett and the Common Council to support the ordinance.

    Without a mask mandate for patrons, “Our employees can’t be assured of a safe work environment,” the letter states. “And the risk is much higher for new outbreaks, which could result in new stay-at-home orders that put us out of business for good.”

    Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce on Friday sent a letter warning that by penalizing businesses for violations, the ordinance would “create unnecessary (potentially violent) conflict between employees of these businesses and clients/customers”; it urged amending the ordinance so that the city, not businesses, would “shoulder the burden of enforcing” the mask requirement, although it was not more specific.

    No such change was made to the measure. The businesses who supported the ordinance stated in their letter that “we also back the enforcement provisions, which are no different than laws we already manage and enforce to ensure that customers refrain from smoking and that they wear shirts and shoes in our establishments.”

    Exceptions to the law include people with a medical or mental health condition or a developmental disability who shouldn’t wear masks according to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other exceptions include people with chronic upper-respiratory conditions and people communicating with deaf or hard of hearing people with whom “communication cannot be achieved through other means” — presumably by lipreading, although the ordinance doesn’t state that explicitly.

    Dental patients, patrons of food and beverage service establishments and other people in situations where it’s not practical to wear a mask while conducting a transaction also would not have to wear a mask, Neither would people who are required by law to show their face uncovered to confirm their identity or people whose religious beliefs prevent them from wearing a covering.

    The law also makes an exception for people in closed government facilities, in public or private K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and people in childcare or youth facilities that have a mitigation strategy that the Milwaukee Commissioner of Public Health has approved.

    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.