The state’s third and fifth biggest cities join Milwaukee and Dane County in passing a mandatory mask ordinance.
Masks will be required in two more Wisconsin cities starting Monday after the city councils in Green Bay and Racine narrowly passed mask mandates Tuesday evening.
The votes, made after lengthy debates on the first day the state logged more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases, mean people in both cities will have to wear a mask while inside public-accessible buildings or while on public transportation. Green Bay and Racine, the third- and fifth-largest cities in the state respectively, are among the hardest-hit metropolitan areas by the pandemic in Wisconsin. Racine’s City Council members voted 8-7 in favor, and Green Bay’s voted 7-5.
Cases are surging across the state and nation. The ten highest daily case totals in Wisconsin have come just since the Fourth of July. Masks, commonly thought to be one of the simplest and most effective ways to slow the virus’ spread, have become a political lightning rod despite the plethora of evidence that they work to contain the pandemic.
“At this point we are out of tools in the toolbox,” Dottie-Kay Bowersox, Racine’s public health director, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “The masks are it.”
The ordinances have some differences.
In Green Bay, residents will not have to wear masks while exercising in a gym, attending religious services, or while outside. Racine provided no exception for gyms or religious services and is requiring masks in outdoor spaces when within six feet of another person who is not a family member.
Individuals found in violation of Racine’s ordinance can face a $25, $50, and $100 fine for their first, second, and third and subsequent offenses. Businesses that are discovered to not be enforcing the mandate can be fined up to $500 and could have their licenses revoked. The ordinance will go into effect on Monday and remain in effect through the rest of the year, unless it is extended or terminated early.
The penalty for violating Green Bay’s mask ordinance is a $10 citation. Like in Racine, businesses can have their licenses revoked if they don’t comply. The mandate will remain in effect until 5 p.m. Aug. 19.
There are 2,715 confirmed coronavirus cases and 69 deaths in Racine County, population 200,000, according to the Department of Health Services. About 1,700 of those cases and 28 deaths are in the City of Racine, population 75,000, according to the Health Department.
In Brown County, population 265,000, there are 3,596 cases and 46 deaths, according to DHS. The Brown County Health Department does not publish data on individual municipalities.
A Brown County committee will also consider a county-wide mask ordinance on Thursday, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reports.
Gov. Tony Evers has already said he likely will not institute a statewide mask mandate — which would certainly face a legal challenge from Legislative Republicans who sued to end the statewide stay-home order — despite the growing number of states that have mandates.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends face coverings, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams during a Fox News interview on Monday begged people to wear face masks. President Donald Trump, who previously resisted mask recommendations, even flipped his stance on Tuesday, saying masks “have an impact.”
Nevertheless, local officials and residents in Racine and Green Bay spoke against the cities’ proposed mask ordinances.
Green Bay resident Brian Higginbotham, who gave coronavirus the racist moniker of “the Wuhan or Chinese virus” that Trump has repeatedly used, spoke against the mask mandate. He falsely claimed the proposal was a constitutional overreach and invoked the Bible story of Noah’s Ark and the Genesis flood, in which almost all of the world’s population is wiped out, in advocating for little or no public-health response to the pandemic.
“This world survived a pandemic of water some 10,000 years ago roughly, and we’ve managed to get up to roughly 6 to 8 billion people,” Higginbotham said.
Brian Johnson, a Green Bay alderman who voted against the ordinance, tried pushing an amendment that would have eliminated all mechanisms for enforcing the requirement, saying businesses should not have the responsibility to enforce laws. He said the ordinance could lead to “an Orwellian world of complete government control.”
That amendment was ultimately voted down.
“What we want is compliance,” said Green Bay Alderman Bill Galvin, who voted for the ordinance. “…We have to have some teeth to this, or else it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
Racine Alderman Henry Perez, who voted against the ordinance, said he supports mask-wearing but did not want to mandate it. He said people will not come to Racine businesses and will go to the nearby suburbs instead.
“I think it’s hurting us economically, it’s hurting us, the morale of our community,” Perez said. “When people have to go outside of our community to get their needs met, it really hurts us overall.”
But at the end of the day, the mask ordinances passed through both councils.
“Much of the data that is coming out around, ‘How do you actually respond effectively to COVID?’ is, one, the hammer and the fist of ‘everybody stay home,’ which is just not sustainable — not economically, not personally, not socially.” said Racine Alderman John Tate II, the Common Council president. “But the other side is, if you’re going to go out and if you’re going to engage with people, the best mitigator that we have at this time is masking.”