Milwaukee leaders considering mask mandate

Ristorante Bartolotta employees are required to wear masks. Photo Credit: The Bartolotta Restaurants.
Bartolotta employees and diners are required to wear masks. Photo Credit: The Bartolotta Restaurants.

Last updated on July 7th, 2020 at 11:26 am

Milwaukee city leaders on Thursday discussed a potential city-wide ordinance that would require people to wear masks in public spaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The legislation was proposed by Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic and is still being drafted. Members of the city’s Public Safety and Health Committee discussed the proposal for about two hours Thursday. 

While many aldermen expressed support for a mask mandate, some raised concerns about penalizing people who don’t have access to masks and how the policy would be enforced outdoors. 

“It’s fraught with inconsistencies and different scenarios,” said Ald. Mark Borkowski, regarding the enforcement of a masking policy for people who are outside. 

Garnering buy-in from the public – rather than penalizing people who don’t comply – will be important when enforcing a potential policy, some committee members noted. 

“We do not have the enforcement tools to do this heavy handedly. … We have to have buy-in,” said Ald. Scott Spiker. 

Currently, the city’s Health Department strongly recommends the use of a mask or cloth face covering, but has not required them. Businesses are allowed to require masks as a policy to provide service.

Committee members did not take a vote on the proposal Thusrday. The full council is expected to discuss the issue when it meets July 7. 

A city-wide mandate is necessary because it would “level the playing field” rather than relying on individual restaurants to decide whether they will require masks, said Dan Jacobs, co-owner of Milwaukee restaurants DanDan, Fauntleroy and EsterEv. 

“It shouldn’t be up to an individual restaurant to mandate a health concern, it should be something the city does. … We don’t mandate the health code, we follow what the city tells us to do,” Jacobs said. 

Jacobs is among more than 70 Milwaukee businesses who called on city officials earlier this week to require patrons and workers to wear face masks in public spaces. 

Milwaukee moved into phase 4 of its reopening plan on Wednesday, which allows bars and restaurants to operate at 50% capacity. In addition, bars and restaurants are allowed to operate without a capacity limit with a COVID-19 safety plan approved by the city Health Department.

Jacobs said he believes a small, vocal minority are opposed to wearing masks in public, but many residents feel safer and more comfortable eating out when everyone is wearing a face covering. 

Of the 359 comments registered by Thursday morning with the City Council regarding the masking proposal, 203 were in support. 

But, Jacobs acknowledged, a masking mandate could mean losing business in the short-term to neighboring communities without those requirements. 

“I like to remind people in the long-term, though, that I believe it will make us stronger because hopefully we won’t have to go backwards,” he said.

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