Evers extends mask mandate
Gov. Tony Evers announces the 60-day extension of the statewide mask mandate Wednesday. (Image provided)

Board members also voted down a measure recommending masks be worn in public. 

St. Croix County Board members voted down a proposed communicable disease ordinance late Tuesday intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 on the same day Wisconsin set a new record for deaths and hospitalizations caused by the virus.

Citing concerns about its impact on businesses and people’s rights, board supervisors voted against the proposal that would have limited occupancy at businesses to 25% of capacity and authorized $100 fines for those not complying with the order. Only hours earlier, the state Department of Health Services reported a one-day record 92 deaths statewide from the coronavirus. Total deaths from the virus in Wisconsin total 2,741, with 346 in the last week.

Supervisors also voted down an amendment that would have weakened the ordinance by authorizing those measures only if deaths caused by the virus continue to increase. Then they opposed an even weaker measure supporting the voluntary wearing of masks in public places.

The proposed ordinance was previously approved by the county Health and Human Services Board by a 7 to 1 vote. But a majority of County Board supervisors compared fighting a deadly pandemic with government overreach and said individuals alone are primarily responsible for taking precautions against virus spread. 

Others objected to that viewpoint, saying local enforcement is needed given that coronavirus cases continue to surge in St. Croix County and elsewhere across Wisconsin. As she watched her fellow county supervisors vote against measures intended to curb virus spread, board member Cathy Leaf was dumbfounded.

“When you look at the case numbers, when you hear how the hospitals are at full capacity and people are dying from this virus, I just don’t understand how we can’t take action to protect the public,” Leaf said Wednesday. “I thought more supervisors would be compelled by the [COVID-19] numbers.”

Hospitals in the northwest part of the state that includes St. Croix County report being at or near capacity as they are flooded with COVID-19 patients. As of Tuesday, a record 2,271 patients were hospitalized statewide with the virus, including 431 who required intensive care.

The decision of the St. Croix County Board to vote down a proposal to enact and strengthen enforcement of rules to slow COVID-19 spread is becoming commonplace across Wisconsin, even as virus cases totals continue to climb and the state remains one of the virus hotspots nationally. Local communities are taking up such measures because of growing concerns about virus spread as a statewide order necessitating the wearing of face masks in public is set to expire on Saturday. 

Republicans have challenged that order by Gov. Tony Evers in court but have repeatedly failed to come up with an alternative plan to address the coronavirus pandemic despite having said they would. 

On Tuesday, Evers introduced new proposals to deal with the virus while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said Republican leadership does not have specific proposals to address COVID-19 but will continue to study the issue. 

In recent months, cities such as Wausau and Eau Claire, and counties such as Chippewa, Jefferson, Price, Winnebago, and others have either rejected or postponed ordinances that would have enacted measures intended to slow virus spread. 

“We don’t need government coming in and giving us even more regulations,” St. Croix County resident Ronald Lafferty said. “Businesses can’t handle any more of that. They’re barely getting by now.”

Some have gone further, making unfounded claims that proposed ordinances would have allowed public health departments to take such actions as removing children from homes and mandating vaccinations. Such actions were not part of proposed ordinances. 

Local government officials said they received an unprecedented number of messages from the public prior to votes on proposed ordinances related to COVID-19, and many of those were of an angry, sometimes threatening nature.  

In St. Croix County, some local government officials said they received a barrage of communications regarding the proposed ordinance, much of it from people outspoken about their opposition to COVID-19 regulations. Leaf said she received hundreds of messages on the topic, and some felt like personal attacks. 

Many accused her of violating the constitution if she supported the ordinance. Others noted she would face harsh judgment from god if she voted in favor of it. Some referred to the coronavirus as a hoax.  

“I don’t scare easily,” Leaf said. “But oh yeah, there was some anger there in some of these messages.”

In Wausau, where the City Council voted last week to enact a mask-wearing recommendation after rejecting a stronger ordinance, Mayor Katie Rosenberg said she and others received similarly strongly-worded messages of opponents to COVID-19 regulations. Such differences of opinion are common in local government issues, she said, but the negative tenor of these communications was different than on other issues. 

“There was a high level of intensity with these messages,” she said.

Not all Wisconsin communities are run by elected officials opposed to ordinances that address COVID-19. On Tuesday Public Health Madison & Dane County issued an order prohibiting indoor gatherings and restricting outdoors get-togethers to no more than 10 people, who must wear face masks and remain socially distant. Milwaukee has enacted coronavirus protections and includes fines of up to $5,000 for repeated violations. 

As Rosenberg watches case numbers in Wausau and surrounding Marathon County continue to rise, she wishes similar regulations were in place. The county is among Wisconsin hot spots for the virus that has caused 111 deaths there

“It’s awful,” she said of the rising death toll. “Our hospitals are full, and this just keeps getting worse and worse. I don’t know what it’s going to take to convince more people we need to do more to address this.”