An ordinance adopted Tuesday in Eau Claire to replace the possible loss of a statewide order requiring that face masks be worn in public requires that businesses post signs like this one at Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub notifying customers that masks must be worn at those locations. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
An ordinance adopted Tuesday in Eau Claire to replace the possible loss of a statewide order requiring that face masks be worn in public requires that businesses post signs like this one at Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub notifying customers that masks must be worn at those locations. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Assembly Speaker says legislators have figured out how to cancel a health emergency but still get the federal cash attached to a health emergency.

Facing the possible end of a statewide face mask order intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, three local governments in northwest Wisconsin and one in the eastern part of the state added local protections Tuesday, joining a handful of other communities with their own mask safeguards.

Those actions come as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) announced in a Wednesday morning news release proposed legislation putting new restrictions on local government and schools regarding coronavirus safeguards along with language preventing the state from losing $49 million monthly in federal food aid to families in need. The Assembly delayed a vote last week in which it was expected to overturn the statewide order after learning of the loss of that funding. 

In Eau Claire, city and county government officials adopted an ordinance that mirrors the statewide order currently in place. The Eau Claire City Council approved the ordinance 11-0 after hearing from people both in favor of and against the measure. 

The Eau Claire County Board voted 24-4 in favor of the same ordinance, which requires that businesses post signs noticing the mask order. The measure is in effect through June 30.

“There is clear and compelling evidence that masks slow the spread of this disease,” Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said. “The idea is to protect others, to care for our community.”

By a voice vote, the Superior City Council adopted a resolution that also is similar to the state mask order. Likewise, the Green Bay City Council approved an extension of its existing mask mandate on Tuesday, by a 9-3 vote. As is the case in Eau Claire, the resolutions in Superior and Green Bay only take effect if the Republican-led state Assembly overturns the statewide mask measure as expected as soon as this week.

Superior Mayor Jim Paine said he believes the city had little choice but to mandate that masks be worn in public as the coronavirus continues to be present in the community, especially with the discovery of several new, especially contagious variants of the virus. 

“I’m pleased, but eager to finish this pandemic,” Paine said of the council’s adoption of the ordinance. “It’s a sobering situation, and we have to do what we can to prevent even one more death.”

Those local governments join a handful of other Wisconsin communities with existing regulations in place ordering the wearing of masks in public. They include Dane County, Madison, and Milwaukee—locations hit hardest by COVID-19-related case numbers and deaths–and Racine, Whitewater, Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, and Wausau.  

The vast majority of the state has no local rules regarding masks and would be without them if the state order is done away with.  

The statewide mask order currently in place was enacted by Gov. Tony Evers on July 30 and has been extended multiple times since then, most recently on Jan. 19. That order is scheduled to expire March 20. 

Republicans have challenged Evers’ ability to issue the orders without their approval and have challenged it in the state Supreme Court. Republican leaders in the state Legislature have vowed to overturn Evers’ recent order. 

The number of coronavirus-related cases and deaths in Wisconsin has dropped considerably since a surge in October and November that overwhelmed hospitals. But deaths caused by the virus continue, and the appearance of several new, especially contagious strains of the virus has public health officials concerned about another increase in cases.

“The variant strains really have shown us why we need to stay vigilant,” Giese said. 

As of Tuesday 544,260 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Health Services, and 5,937, including 40 reported that day, have died from the virus. 

The local mask regulations were approved despite pushback from people opposed to being forced to wear masks in public. Sixteen of the 26 people who testified before the Eau Claire City Council said they oppose the ordinance because it infringes on their personal freedoms, with one speaker going so far as to threaten legal action against the city if they adopted the ordinance. 

Eau Claire resident Tom Jacobs said he wears a mask in public, but he opposes that action be required by local regulation. 

“I wear the mask because the sign says to,” he said. “Most people are just like me. We’re trying to legislate a non-issue.”

In contrast, others said a mask mandate is needed to continue to protect people from contracting the virus. People can be carriers of COVID-19 but be asymptomatic and unknowingly spread the illness to others, they said. 

“Protecting the public’s health is not a debatable issue,” Eau Claire resident Susan Wolfgram told Eau Claire City Council members. “Face coverings can be the difference between life and death for some of our neighbors.”

Paine acknowledged opposition to mask-wearing rules in the Superior area. Similar to the state ordinance, the local regulations in Superior and elsewhere include the ability to issue fines to businesses and individuals who don’t comply. 

In Eau Claire, businesses and individuals could face a fine of up to $200, just as is called for in the statewide order, for failing to wear masks. But virtually no fines have been imposed previously in Eau Claire County, officials said, and Giese said her department intends to work with people and businesses toward compliance.