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Watch now: Indoor mask mandate is back for Dane County
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Watch now: Indoor mask mandate is back for Dane County

With COVID-19 cases surging, Dane County again will be under an indoor mask mandate starting Thursday under a new order issued by Public Health Madison and Dane County.

Under the order, which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, everyone age 2 and older in Dane County must wear a face covering or mask when in any enclosed space open to the public where other people, except for members of the person’s own household or living unit, could be present.

Public Health also strongly recommended wearing a face covering at private gatherings or crowded outdoor settings.

Businesses subject to the order are once again required to post signs notifying customers and staff of the face covering requirement, which will be in effect until 12:01 a.m. Sept. 16.

“We still believe vaccines are our best tool to protect our community,” Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, said in a statement. “But as cases continue to increase, requiring face coverings is an easy added layer of protection to further help keep people safe, including our youngest children not yet eligible to be vaccinated.”

Asked how a business or other facility should determine whether it’s subject to the mandate, the health department said the order applies to any enclosed space open to the public or any building subject to the standards of access established by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA applies to all spaces that serve the public, as well as most private buildings, including offices, factories, warehouses and manufacturing plants.

People working in buildings that are closed to the public but are still subject to ADA laws will need to wear masks in congregate workspaces, Public Health said, but they will not be required in private offices when alone, with the door closed.

“Private homes are essentially the only example of a private building that is not subject to ADA standards,” Public Health spokesperson Morgan Finke said.

Signs go back up

Madison businesses were preparing Tuesday to change policies and bring the mask mandate signs back out. While a few already had mask requirements, many had made masks optional for customers.

Skylar Palm, store manager of Art Gecko, a jewelry, clothing and décor shop with locations on Monroe and State streets, said her store had initially required masks but dropped the rule because of a decline in sales.

“Unfortunately it does turn away a lot of people from out of state,” she said. “It’s hard as a small business, but it’s also, like, you can’t just not follow the rules.”

Palm agreed that masking is an important step to protect those who can’t get vaccinated, such as children and immunocompromised individuals. But she said it does “take a lot out of us” when people yell at staff because they don’t want to wear a face covering. She said she’s not looking forward to that pushback when her store reinstates its mask policy on Thursday.

Mackesey’s Irish Pub on State Street was strongly encouraging masks for all patrons Tuesday. Owner Jess Dye said face coverings would be mandated again on Thursday, but she said the rule will be difficult to enforce.

“Once people have a drink or two in them, it doesn’t get easier,” Dye said. “Sometimes it’s just not worth getting into an argument with a belligerent person.”

Pfizer says new data suggests a third dose of its COVID vaccine can strongly increase protection against the delta variant.

Finn Porter, a sales associate at Anthology, a shop that already requires masks, said she hopes the new mandate will result in people being more respectful and understanding when it comes to wearing a mask.

“People just don’t want to” wear masks, said Lyla Gale, assistant manager at Sencha Tea Bar.

In an email to members, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday it is “pro-mask” and “pro-vaccination,” but objected to local government forcing businesses to implement mask mandates, especially when Public Health does not identify businesses as a source of significant COVID-19 spread.

At the gym

The mask mandate poses special challenges for gyms, which struggled to comply with the previous mandate.

YMCA of Dane County spokesperson Scott Shoemaker said leadership was busy Tuesday communicating with staff, members and program participants that masks will once again be required in all indoor areas.

“We are committed to doing all we can to keep everyone in the various communities we serve informed, healthy and engaged,” he said.

During the previous mask mandate, Shoemaker said the Y “of course” heard from members who did not want to wear masks while working out, although he said most did.

“Because the Y is a nonprofit and does much more than just ‘gym and swim,’ it’s really a like-minded community ... a concept that members buy into and become a part of, so perhaps being part of that community tempered the issue with our membership,” he said.

Representatives of other gyms in the area either declined to comment or did not return phone calls or respond to in-person requests for comment.

Response to surge

In early June, Public Health let its coronavirus restrictions and accompanying mask mandate expire after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said in May that fully vaccinated people could largely return to their pre-pandemic practices. Health officials have continued to urge unvaccinated people to wear face masks indoors or when physical distancing is not possible outdoors.

But in late July, the agency issued a mask advisory in response to the CDC’s updated guidance on masking for the fully vaccinated amid a surge in coronavirus cases — particularly in unvaccinated pockets of the country — driven by the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus.

Wisconsin’s rate of coronavirus cases this week reached a level not seen since the winter due to the delta variant. The state Department of Health Services reported the seven-day average for new cases on Tuesday reached 1,218 — the highest since early February.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 88%, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. Health officials also reported 12 more deaths, bringing the overall tally to 8,336 confirmed and probable deaths from the disease.

In Dane County, on July 19, the seven-day average number of cases was 19, and on Aug. 12, the seven-day average had jumped by 382% to 91.6.

“As virus spread is fueled by the prevalence of the delta variant, it is clear that we need to use all of our tools to keep our community safe, and that means getting vaccinated and wearing masks,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement.

Nearly all hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 now come from people who are not vaccinated, and state officials say vaccination is the best tool against the virus. About 53% of the state’s total population is fully vaccinated.

Public Health reports that 71.3% of all Dane County residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 68.2% have completed the vaccine series. More than 82% of the eligible population (ages 12 and older) have received at least one dose of vaccine and more than 78% have completed the vaccine series.

The COVID-19 vaccines have not been approved for children under 12, though studies are ongoing, including one being done for Moderna’s vaccine by UW Health.

“With our kids heading back to school and hospitals in other parts of the country overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, moving from a mask recommendation to a requirement is a common sense step to prevent disease spread and protect the kids in our community who can’t get vaccinated yet,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said in a statement.

School mandates

The Madison School District and other districts in Dane County, including Monona Grove, Verona and Sun Prairie, had already decided to start the year off with both staff and students required to wear masks while indoors.

The Diocese of Madison, which oversees the majority of private schools in Dane County, issued guidance July 22 saying masks would be optional at its more than 40 schools in southern Wisconsin, but schools were given flexibility to come up with their own policies.

“Prior to the county announcement earlier today, about half of our Dane County schools were requiring masks and the other half had masks as optional,” Diocese spokesperson Brent King said. He said the Diocese’s Dane County schools would abide by the new county mask order.

Other Dane County private schools, including some religious ones, had also already decided to require masks for students and staff, including Madison Country Day School and High Point Christian School.

While most Madison-area public schools were closed to in-person learning for much of the 2020-21 school year, many private schools opened their doors after winning a court order last year that placed a hold on a Dane County order closing schools to most in-person learning. Public Health said Tuesday that it was not aware of any COVID-19 deaths or hospitalizations linked to in-person schooling in the county.

State Journal reporters Jeff Richgels, Erin Gretzinger, Emily Hamer and Chris Rickert contributed to this report.

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