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Some Madison businesses will require, encourage masks after county mandate lifts

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Orange Tree Imports

Susan Fortney restocks greeting cards at Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe St. Orange Tree will continue to have its own mask requirement after Public Health Madison and Dane County’s mask mandate expires on Tuesday.

It’s a typical Friday at Orange Tree Imports, a Monroe Street gift and gourmet shop — masked employees and customers mill about in a reality that's been familiar for the past two years.

Starting Tuesday, Public Health Madison and Dane County will let its monthslong coronavirus mask mandate expire. But Orange Tree will keep a mask requirement for staff and shoppers, said co-owner Carol “Orange” Schroeder.

Other Madison businesses appear ready to embrace what local health experts say could be the pandemic’s next chapter, even after a harsh winter caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Huge spikes in COVID-19 cases this past winter resulted in staffing shortages in an already tight labor market. And while some businesses encouraged their employees to work from home if possible, others had to close altogether.

Schroeder said she is concerned Dane County’s mandate expiration is “premature.” The business owner, like others in the city, worries about customers with children under the age of 5 who can’t get vaccinated yet, as well as the immunocompromised.

She’s also concerned about “more of a confrontation opportunity” for customers coming into the shop without masks, though she’s encouraged the majority of the county is fully immunized, and customers have appeared willing to comply with local health protocols thus far.

At least 63.9% of Wisconsinites had received one dose of the COVID vaccine as of Feb. 24, according to Public Health data. Just over 60% of state residents have obtained their second dose, and 32% a third, booster, jab.

“We’ve seen our numbers both for case and hospitalizations dropping pretty substantially,” Public Health spokesperson Morgan Finke said of what influenced the decision to let the mandate expire after omicron.

For businesses that will continue to require masks, Finke said “it is up to them to communicate those policies with their customers.” The agency will offer signage that businesses can use, and continue to advise on health and safety protocols.

COVID cases decreased between Feb. 7 and Feb. 24 to an average of 215 per day, according to Public Health data. Hospitalizations also decreased with an average of 87 each day, and the number of deaths has tapered off over the past month.

Percent positivity during the last two weeks was 7.3%, and an average of 2,928 tests were conducted per day, according to the data.

Orange Tree Imports

Elisha Jones, left, and Becky Oehmen shop at Orange Tree Imports, where masks will continue to be required after the the county's mask order expires Tuesday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday rolled back its masking guidelines, saying that more than 70% of the U.S. population lives in locations with low or medium COVID-19 transmission levels. Most people who are considered healthy don’t need to wear masks indoors, according to the new guidance.

Whereas Dane County was considered a high community transmission area under the previous guidelines, under the new guidelines Dane County is now a low risk. The new guidelines factor in those protected from vaccines and illness, as well as hospital bed utilization rates, and note “the risk of medically significant disease, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 is greatly reduced for most people.”

The changes were made despite some reports about a descendant variant of omicron, known as BA.2. Finke said early research suggests the variant is more transmissible than its original counterpart, but COVID cases continue to fall in places where the strain has become more prevalent.

And while some studies suggest the variant is more severe than omicron, vaccines remain effective against it.

“All this goes to show … COVID is not over, but we are entering a turning point (in the pandemic),” Finke said.

A turning point?

Brennan Nardi, owner of Harmony Bar on Madison’s East Side, said the lifting of the county mask mandate has her “relieved” after a hard winter of staffing shortages due to employees being out sick with COVID.

She’s looking forward to holding more live music events, comedy nights and other affairs for customers, especially as spring and summer loom. The bar will not require masks starting Tuesday, she said, but it will have vaccine mandates for events.

At Madison-based American Family Insurance, masks will be strongly encouraged, but not required for vaccinated employees, said spokesperson Clare Hendricks.

“We have implemented a COVID-19 testing program for all enterprise employees who are not fully vaccinated and must come into the office or work in-person with others in order to complete their job duties,” Hendricks said, adding she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the next few months. “These employees must also wear a KN95 mask when working and physically distance themselves from others as much as possible.”

Orange Tree Imports

Businesses in Dane County have been able to point to the county's mask order, which expire on Tuesday, as a reason for customers to don masks.

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce welcomed the mandate’s expiration.

“For months … we sought greater clarity on the metrics and decision-making behind continued government orders, yet Dane County businesses have stepped up by following and enforcing public health orders and encouraging workforce vaccinations,” said chamber president Zach Brandon. “As we recalibrate, we will continue to support our community’s health, but we must now turn our focus to the hard work of accelerating our economic recovery.”

Remaining requirements

Gretchen Treu is a co-owner of A Room of One’s Own bookstore on Madison’s East Side reported being “disappointed and worried about the loss of the mask mandate in Dane County.”

The store will continue to require masks for customers and employees after Tuesday. It closed briefly during the brunt of the omicron surge because of staffing shortages.

“It’s especially upsetting to me as a parent of a 2½-year-old, given we still don’t know when people that young will have access to vaccines,” Treu said. “My family still rarely goes out because of this.”

A COVID vaccine for children under age 5 still awaits approval in the U.S., and recent approval efforts have stalled.

On enforcing the bookstore’s mask requirement, Treu said “this likely means we will have to pay for an additional staff person just to monitor the door and make sure people are masked upon entry.”

“(The requirement) does not negatively affect people’s ability to shop for books, and it serves to protect my staff and customers who are immunocompromised or have household members too young to benefit from COVID vaccines,” Treu added.

Marigold Kitchen, a popular Downtown restaurant, will continue to require masks for staff, but not for customers, said owner Clark Heine.

Willy Street Co-op with several locations in the Madison area is taking a similar approach, said spokesperson Brendon Smith.

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