Questioning Milwaukee mask mandate revocation

Milwaukee is one holiday weekend away from scrapping its mask ordinance, and some members of the Common Council are worried.

The Common Council's Public Safety and Health Committee questioned the city's health commisioner about the end of COVID-19 restrictions.  

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Milwaukee had mandated masks since July 2020, when the Common Council passed it unanimously. Now, council members are divided.

"I have deep concerns about the impact the lifting will have on the African-American community, given the low vaccination rates in the community," Alderwoman Milele Coggs said.

People wearing masks in Milwaukee

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic said council members were not consulted ahead of the mayor's and health commissioner's decision to let the health order expire.

"It was certainly surprising and disappointing that we had no idea this was going to happen," said Dimitrijevic. "When you rescind the health order, it does give symbolically the feeling that things are over, and they’re not."

The mask ordinance applies inside public places and outside within six feet of someone who doesn't live with you. The outgoing ordinance sets a time limit: for the "duration of the Moving Milwaukee Forward" health orders. The health commissioner will stop that order June 1, meaning the mask mandate will be no more.

CDC guidance debate

In previous days, the mayor said the decision to rescind the health order was about consistency.  

"We followed the science," Barrett said. "We followed the CDC every point along the way. We’re going to continue to do that now."

"As the health order is rescinded, and there is no mask mandate in place, there are some places that could have people maskless, and 80% of the maskless people are unvaccinated," Dimitrijevic said. "I really want to understand, because I’ve been told over and over through interesting e-mails and such to follow the science. The science to me that I heard from the CDC is that vaccinated people, I’ll say that again, vaccinated people, so roughly the 40% of people currently in Milwaukee, can be maskless when they’re vaccinated. I get that, it’s clear. I just don’t understand the science that unvaccinated people should go maskless."

Johnson said her decision was not made lightly, but over five days after the CDC guidance said the fully vaccinated could go maskless.

"Our (COVID-19) burden is heading into a decline, and if you look at what happened last summer, the numbers continue to decline over the summer. They didn’t start to increase again until September," said Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson. "I think that gives us this summer to get more vaccine in arms, so I’m not concerned about what may occur over the course of the summer."

"If you look at the ages of the individuals of the people who are vaccinated across the entire city, the older population that is most vulnerable and most at risk of being hospitalized or facing death is much more highly vaccinated," added Johnson.

The health commissioner also responded to worries about kids under 12 years old who cannot yet get the vaccine.

"The guidance is still individuals under 12 should wear masks when they are in public. We know that’s effective," said Johnson. "The vaccine is coming for younger children, but the other piece is we know that that the disease burden in our younger population is significantly less than it is in our older populations."

Johnson said just because the health order is expiring, she wouldn't hesitate to put it back into place if numbers spike. 

Alderman Scott Spiker expressed his worry with that option. "It may be that putting the genie back into the bottle in fall may be a little harder, especially if you get people used to not having mask and not worrying about them."

For now, Tuesday, June 1 is the day the mandate goes away. Still, businesses can require people to mask up – just like they say "no shoes, no shirt, no service."

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