MMAC’s Sheehy: Milwaukee’s mask mandate is ‘blunt instrument’ and threatening to businesses

Last updated on January 21st, 2022 at 04:54 pm

Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president Tim Sheehy said the city of Milwaukee’s new mask mandate is “a blunt instrument” and threatening to business owners.

Sheehy spoke to reporters Tuesday afternoon following the Common Council’s decision to enact a city-wide mask ordinance. The mandate, which passed 12-1, applies to anyone ages 3 and older, inside businesses that are open to the public.

Sheehy raised issues particularly with the city’s approach to enforcing the mandate. City health commissioner Kirsten Johnson has indicated her department does not have capacity to issue citations for businesses that don’t comply with the ordinance, but violations could come up during a business’s license renewal application. Sheehy said that possibility is “more chilling” than fines.

“It comes with a threat that at some point the council could revoke your license to operate,” he said. “So, instead of a $500 or $5,000 fine, based on some arbitrary finding by the council, you could have your license to operate your business revoked.”

The mandate adds a burden on to businesses already struggling with staffing and supplies-related challenges, he said.

“… we’re trying to address a public health concern on the backs of a very narrow number of businesses that are dealing with the public that are already trying to do the best thing to keep their employees safe and to keep their customers safe,” Sheehy said. “Now this is an added burden with the threat of having their license revoked under conditions that aren’t clear, because the council wasn’t clear.”

He said the mandate requires employees to serve as “mask police” and will create confusion because of the lack of enforcement by the city.

The ordinance is set to expire March 1. Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson said Tuesday afternoon he will sign the ordinance when it reaches his desk.

“I believe that what’s been passed is reasonable, the duration is limited, it strongly enforces what I’ve been saying all along, which is to wear a mask,” Cavalier Johnson said.

Kirsten Johnson acknowledged the mask mandate introduces challenges because none of the municipalities bordering the city have implemented similar mandates.

“I do think that’s a challenge,” she said. “That said, … our stance has not changed. People should absolutely be masked indoors in public, and I think this ordinance just makes that official.”

Sheehy noted the MMAC backed earlier COVID mitigation measures, including Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order, and supports vaccinations, booster shots and masking as a way to “turn COVID-19 from pandemic to endemic.”

“Many Milwaukee region employers, public-facing venues and educational institutions have implemented mask requirements,” he said. “Many individuals embrace personal responsibility and choose to wear masks in public indoor spaces.”

The health department last week said it distributed 1 million N95 masks, supplied by the state, to the public.

The city of Milwaukee remains in the “extreme transmission” category based on the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests. Currently, 61.4% of city of Milwaukee adults 16 years and older are fully vaccinated and 66.7% have received at least their first dose. Just under 38% of fully vaccinated individuals have received a booster dose.

Milwaukee County updated its vaccine mandate this week to require booster vaccines for employees, contractors and volunteers at high-risk facilities, including the Milwaukee County Jail, the House of Correction, Youth Detention Center and Behavioral Health Division hospital service. Affected employees must receive their booster shot by Feb. 4 or 21 days after becoming eligible, under the mandate.

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