Gov Tony Evers said it is “unlikely” he will institute a statewide order requiring face masks in Wisconsin, but such a measure remains under consideration as a potential way to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus amid a troubling increase in the number of people infected.
During a media call with reporters on Tuesday, Evers said the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s May ruling to eliminate his “safer at home” order has created questions about what power he or Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm has to implement statewide public health orders.
“The Supreme Court ended not only ‘safer at home’ but really created a chaotic situation so we really don’t know if I have the authority to do that,” Evers said when asked about a statewide mandate on face masks. “It makes it unlikely, but it’s something we’re considering.”
On Tuesday, Public Health Madison and Dane County announced that starting at 8 a.m. Monday, everyone age 5 and older will be required to wear a face covering or mask in any enclosed building where other people could be present — except for in their homes.
The order applies to businesses, health care settings, waiting in line, public transportation and visits to other people’s homes. Some people with conditions that prevent them from wearing masks are exempt, as are certain activities, such as eating at a restaurant. But physical distancing of 6 feet is required for such activities.
Also on Tuesday, Evers announced that Wisconsin Emergency Management plans to ship more than 2 million cloth face masks to schools throughout the state. The plan includes providing more than 4,200 infrared thermometers for K-12 public, charter and private schools, and more than 60,000 masks for local food processors and businesses.
“As our economy continues to reopen, we know businesses want to protect their customers and workers, and schools across our state are preparing to reopen safely for our kids, educators and staff, so these efforts now are critically important to ensure they have the resources and supplies they need to keep folks safe,” Evers said in a statement.
The cloth masks and thermometers were supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency at no cost to the state.
Of the masks to be distributed to businesses by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, 22,500 will go to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, 22,500 will go to small grocers through the Wisconsin Grocers Association, 8,000 will go to small food processors through the Midwest Food Products Association, 2,500 will be provided to cheese plants through the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, 2,000 will be distributed to meat processors and 2,000 will go to the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association for front-line workers.
The announcement comes after a June survey of school administrators found at least 398 public school districts, 23 charter schools and 617 private schools said they would like to receive supplies. More requests are expected, according to the statement.
“Risk mitigation and health factors will drive decisions regarding school operations this fall,” State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor said in a statement. “This allocation of cloth masks and thermometers will greatly help Wisconsin schools as they plan appropriately for students to return to school.”
Nine more deaths
Palm said it took about five months for the state to log 15,500 positive cases. However, that number has more than doubled in the six weeks since Memorial Day.
Nearly 500 cases were confirmed Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to more than 32,500. The state’s death toll, which had remained unchanged for four days, increased by nine Tuesday, reaching 805.
“As we are starting to see this surge, I think we want to encourage folks to work again with us to re-flatten the curve, to stop the spread, to slow the incline of the growth of cases that we are seeing,” Palm said.
DHS chief medical officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard attributed the increase in positive cases and reduction in overall deaths and hospitalizations to a growing number of younger people contracting the virus, many without symptoms.
“What’s really so very serious about the situation we’re in right now is that by transmission going in the wrong direction, we’re at risk of the virus getting a foothold to the point where it’s widespread. In that situation, everybody is at risk,” Westergaard said.
Won’t list businesses
Following a video conference last week with local health departments, a DHS official said Tuesday the department had walked back potential plans to publicly list the names of businesses that see multiple positive cases of COVID-19.
“We received feedback during that call (and throughout the week) about this proposal,” DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said in an email. “We took all of that input into account and decided that we have no immediate plans to post the information on the website.”
Palm also said the department had conversations with different partners about posting such data on the DHS website and “through those conversations, we decided that we would certainly not be doing that this week.”
However, DHS officials said the department currently is processing outstanding records requests pertaining to public health investigations at individual businesses to determine what information might be released.
On Wednesday, a conservative media outlet quoting anonymous sources reported that Gov. Tony Evers’ administration was planning to post online the names of any businesses with at least two COVID-19 cases.
The report prompted the state’s largest business organizations — including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and Wisconsin Grocers Association — to send letters to Evers’ office saying releasing such information would have severe impacts on businesses already struggling through the pandemic.
Brandon Scholz, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said Tuesday he was frustrated with the lack of clear answers from DHS on the matter, which he said has led to concern among business owners.
“You’re just left in a state of confusion,” Scholz said. “You’re kind of out there on your own.”
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