Dane County becomes Wisconsin's 1st with mask requirement: 'Every time we leave the house'

MADISON — All Dane County residents will be required to wear masks when indoors, except at their own home, under the first order of its kind issued Tuesday in Wisconsin as cases of COVID-19 are rising in the state, particularly among young adults.

The order from Public Health Madison and Dane County takes effect Monday. It's the first community to issue a mask requirement in Wisconsin, but it's unlikely to be the last. Milwaukee is also discussing taking similar steps.

“Public health research now shows that face coverings are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, said in a statement. “Given the current number of COVID-19 infections in our county, we need to all be wearing face coverings every time we leave the house.”

Dane County is the state's largest, with more than 500,000 people, and is home to the state capital of Madison as well as the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, which plans to reopen to students in the fall.

The order comes after Dane County closed bars for indoor service and tightened limits on gatherings last week as confirmed cases rose. The order applies to anyone who is age 5 or older. People with health conditions that prevent them from wearing masks are exempt. Masks would have to be worn by anyone visiting another person’s home, but not inside their own residence.

A growing number of states are requiring masks to be worn in public. But there is no statewide mask or occupancy order in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in May struck down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide order as unconstitutional, leaving it up to local communities to enact their own limitations. Some of those have also faced challenges in court.

Evers announced Tuesday that the state will be distributing more than 2 million cloth masks and more than 4,200 infrared thermometers to K-12 schools, and about 60,000 masks to local food processors and businesses.

Also Tuesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said it will not release the names of businesses and other places where there have been at least two confirmed cases of the coronavirus after businesses groups and Republican lawmakers opposed the idea.

The state chamber of commerce, the Wisconsin Grocers Association and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association all raised concerns last week about the impact it would have on businesses.

After receiving feedback, the Department of Health Services has “no immediate plans to list businesses with COVID-19 positives on our website,” said agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt in an email Tuesday. That said, names of businesses could still be made public through open records requests filed by journalists and others, she said.

The state health department has 361 investigations into coronavirus outbreaks at workplaces and “other settings” that exclude facilities related to health care. There have been 507 investigations in total at non-health care facilities, according to the department's website.

The department does name nursing homes with active investigations.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said releasing the names would give a better sense of how the virus is spreading, help people make decisions and force businesses to be more vigilant.

The number of newly confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Wisconsin, like in a majority of states, has been trending upward the past two weeks. As of Monday, there had been 796 deaths and more than 32,000 confirmed cases. Of those who have contracted the virus, 79% have recovered and 2% have died, according to the state health department.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.