Alan Nugent, right, owner of the Stockholm Pie and General Store, works with a fellow employee and a customer on Aug. 1, the first day of Gov. Tony Evers’ order making the wearing of masks in public places in Wisconsin mandatory. Nugent said a handful of people have left his store because they would not wear masks, but most people abide by the regulation. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Alan Nugent, right, owner of the Stockholm Pie and General Store, works with a fellow employee and a customer on Aug. 1, the first day of Gov. Tony Evers’ order making the wearing of masks in public places in Wisconsin mandatory. Nugent said a handful of people have left his store because they would not wear masks, but most people abide by the regulation. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Compliance is what people make of it, with some cities cracking down on businesses that do not comply, others ignoring it.

Just hours after a mandatory order to wear face coverings in public places in Wisconsin began, Alan Nugent learned firsthand that not everyone is willing to comply with the directive. 

On a busy Saturday at the Stockholm Pie and General Store Nugent co-owns, one group entered the shop without masks, ordered by Gov. Tony Evers last week to be worn in public to prevent further spread of COVID-19 as the cases of the virus continue to climb in the state.  

As Nugent approached them, one man in the group angrily said he couldn’t wear a mask. Nugent acknowledged him, then quickly offered masks he had purchased previously to the others, saying “I’m sure the rest of you can wear them.” They reluctantly put them on. 

The group got their pie and headed immediately outside to eat it rather than remain in the store. That same day another man in a group “threw a fit” when he was told he had to wear a mask, Nugent said. Another couple just left the store when informed of the mask requirement.  

Other customers left bad reviews of the pie shop because of their anger toward being told to wear masks, he said. 

“Most people have been really good about wearing masks,” Nugent said Friday, “but not everyone. We’ve had some pushback, and there are people who are really angry about this.”

In recent days several other couples have left his Pepin County business rather than wear masks, Nugent said. His store isn’t alone among Wisconsin businesses experiencing customers balking at covering their faces, business owners and public health officials across Wisconsin told UpNorthNews.

The majority of patrons are wearing masks, business owners said, and are complying with efforts such as social distancing and hand washing to prevent furthering COVID-19. However, businesses and customers alike report numerous instances of people refusing — sometimes angrily — to put on masks in public as the state order requires. 

The mask order ends Sept. 28. Fines for noncompliance vary, and top off at $200.

Nicole Lasker, owner of Lasker Jewelers in Eau Claire, has required her employees and customers wear masks since the store reopened in May after the safer-at-home shutdown. She said some customers there have told her they will no longer shop at her store because of the mask requirement. 

“It is upsetting,” Lasker said of the negative reaction to masks. “I believe wearing masks has kept our staff healthy and our doors open.” 

Many staff interactions with patrons last more than 15 minutes, Lasker said, making masks especially important. Medical experts believe close proximity with people for 15 minutes or longer increases the likelihood of spreading the virus. 

“I really want to do as much as I can to keep everyone’s exposure (to the virus) to a minimum,” she said.

Other business owners echoed that sentiment. Many said they fear another shutdown if COVID-19 cases keep increasing across Wisconsin. 

A sign at Stockholm Pie and General Store alerts customers to the fact that they are required to wear face masks in the business. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

The number of new daily cases of the virus statewide routinely tops 800 during the past couple of weeks, according to state Department of Health Services numbers. Sixty-six of Wisconsin’s 72 counties currently are considered to have high levels of the virus, with the other six counties ranked as medium. 

As of Thursday, 57,779 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Wisconsin, and 978 had died from the virus.      

As cases of the virus keep rising, the staff at the Watershed Cafe in the Polk County village of Osceola is enforcing the mask mandate. The vast majority of customers comply with the order, cafe manager Gabe Lee said, although some do so reluctantly. 

“We have some folks who are a little angry about it, but they still put masks on,” Lee said, noting the cafe provides masks for people who don’t bring their own. 

Most businesses in the Osceola area appear to be enforcing the mask order as best they can, he said, although they sometimes run into resistance from customers who don’t believe they should be forced to wear masks. 

Despite concerns about COVID-19, Lee said, business in Osceola and many smaller communities is brisk as people seem to be taking day trips instead of bigger vacations. With more people around, wearing masks to prevent disease spread is important, he said. 

As in Osceola, most people in Wausau are wearing masks, Mayor Katie Rosenberg said.

“I’m seeing a lot of compliance, thankfully,” she said. 

Mask wearing is occurring in most cases in La Crosse as well, said Robin Moses, executive director of Downtown Main Street La Crosse. A statewide mask mandate has made it easier for businesses to enforce the wearing of masks, she said, rather than put the onus on business owners to force the issue. 

“When there was no mandate, it created an uneven situation from a competition standpoint,” Moses said. “Some businesses were adhering to guidelines, and some were not … The state mandate makes it easier for businesses to tell customers to put on a mask.” 

Mask debate

However, not all businesses are requiring customers, and in some cases even employees, to wear masks, public health officials and others across the state said. Residents living in urban and rural parts of Wisconsin report violations of the mandatory mask order by customers and businesses. 

Taverns, convenience stores, and restaurants are businesses many mention as the biggest offenders of the mask order, in part because eating and drinking require the temporary removal of masks. However, many people report minimal or no enforcement of the order at many of those locations. 

County health officers confirmed that bars and restaurants tend to be many of the businesses they have received mask violation complaints about.  

“We have gotten a number of complaints, mainly bars and restaurants,” Chippewa County Health Department Director Angela Weideman said.

Some Wisconsin residents said they don’t believe the state can order them to wear masks, an issue that has become politicized during the coronavirus pandemic. Others said they don’t believe COVID-19 presents as significant of a threat as public health officers say. 

“I don’t think it’s as big a deal as they say it is,” rural Spooner resident Shirley Salm said of COVID-19. “And I think I should have the choice about whether I wear a mask or not.”  

The Pickle bar, on Water Street in Eau Claire, is known to locals as a spot where patrons do not always mask up. The bar has been the site of multiple potential COVID-19 exposure warnings. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

It’s not only residents rebelling against mask wearing. Some businesses are taking a hard-line stance against the mask mandate. In Middleton, Helbachs Coffee Roasters and Kitchen owner Casey Helbach said in a GoFundMe post that he intends to file a lawsuit against Public Health Madison and Dane County after the health department filed a notice that it intends to revoke Helbachs’ food and drink license for violating the mask order.   

Other businesses are being cited for failing to enforce the mask order. For instance, the city of Milwaukee has issued warnings against nine businesses after receiving complaints that people were failing to follow the mask mandate. 

However, most businesses support the wearing of masks, Moses said. With escalating COVID-19 cases, business owners worry they may be shut down again, a move that would prompt even further economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic than those they already face. 

“There certainly are fears of another shutdown,” she said. “We need to do what we can to keep (COVID-19) in check.”

Health officials in most of the state have been reluctant to cite businesses for violating the mask order. Instead, they said, they are working toward compliance without issuing fines against businesses. As an example of that approach, government leaders in Eau Claire County issued a news release on Aug. 5 urging people to comply with the mandatory mask order.

“Our goal is not to issue fines, but to educate about the importance of wearing masks to prevent the spread of this disease,” Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said.