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Wisconsin DHS: Fully vaccinated can ditch masks, resume pre-pandemic activities

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Wisconsin residents who are fully vaccinated can ditch the face masks and return to activities they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s health department said Friday.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said it supported the new guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday that fully vaccinated people can largely resume pre-pandemic lives, including not wearing face masks indoors in most instances.

DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said the new guidance for people who are fully vaccinated, considered to occur two weeks after completing a vaccination series, is “an exciting step forward.”

“The science is clear: if you are fully vaccinated, you are protected, and you can start doing the things that you stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Timberlake said in a statement.

But with no statewide mask mandate or coronavirus restrictions in place because of Republican-led court challenges, the statement from DHS amounts to more of an endorsement than a policy change.

In Dane County, however, an indoor face mask mandate remains for now — for the vaccinated and not vaccinated alike.

On Friday, the joint city-county health department wouldn’t say whether the new CDC advice would affect its existing COVID-19 emergency order and mask mandate. The CDC says people who are not vaccinated should continue to wear face masks indoors, while those who are fully vaccinated should still wear masks in congested places such as buses, airplanes, hospitals and homeless shelters.

While mask mandates began falling around the country almost immediately after the CDC issued its new guidance, Public Health Madison and Dane County said only that it would “have an update on our mask mandate and public health orders on Tuesday.” The county has the second-highest rate of fully vaccinated people in the state.

Dr. Patrick Remington, professor emeritus at UW-Madison’s Department of Population Health Sciences, said it’s reasonable for local governments to carefully assess new guidance before acting on it.

“That’s the reason we have local health departments, to consider the local context,” he said.

But Remington said conflicting positions on mask requirements from local departments and the federal guidance can create confusion.

“In a way, I think the federal government has a little bit easier job,” Remington said. “They look at the science. At 30,000 feet, they provide broad guidance, and then it’s up to the local communities to come up with specific language in a local rule that’s both understandable and consistent with local context and enforceable.”

Varying approaches

On Friday, Rock County — where 34.5% of its residents are fully vaccinated, or about 18 percentage points less than Dane County — immediately terminated its mask order, citing the CDC guidance. The county, which neighbors Dane to the south, encouraged those who haven’t been inoculated yet to get the vaccine, socially distance and wear masks indoors.

Around the country, some states including Minnesota took moves to lift masking requirements in response to the advice, while others, such as California, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

This isn’t the first time Public Health hasn’t immediately adopted new CDC guidance.

After the federal agency said in March fully vaccinated individuals could safely gather unmasked in small groups with others who were fully vaccinated, Public Health took 10 days to amend its local order to reflect the CDC’s guidance.

Until Dane County’s masking position is clarified next week, Remington said he expects some people will continue to follow the existing rule, which requires masks indoors for everybody with limited exceptions. But others might stop wearing them before a new policy is in place, he said.

“I suspect in this intermediate period, there will not be a focus on enforcement during a period when Dane County is deliberating,” Remington said. “I can’t imagine anyone’s going to go out and enforce a policy that’s likely to change.”

At a bill-signing ceremony outside the state Capitol on Friday, Gov. Tony Evers praised the new guidelines from the CDC, saying his administration would review the recommendations and evaluate whether to bring state workers back to offices en masse.

Wisconsin has not had a statewide mask mandate since March 31, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down Evers’ COVID-19 emergency order and accompanying mask requirement.

Businesses react

Businesses, entertainment venues and organizers in Dane County are staying the course for now but are eager to see what changes may come.

Vern Stenman, president of Big Top Sports and Entertainment, said no changes will be made to plans for Saturday’s Forward Madison FC home opener

  • at Breese Stevens Field.

Big Top announced recently that it would offer special seating sections

  • for vaccinated adults at the professional soccer team’s matches and also for Mallards baseball games at the Duck Pond at Warner Park. Those plans — as well as requirements for everyone to wear a mask in common areas — will remain in place for now, Stenman said.

When changes to local regulations are announced next week, the biggest factors for Mallards games and Forward Madison matches will be the distance requirements between households and policies regarding children in areas currently open only to vaccinated adults, Stenman said.

  • Goodwill Industries of South Central Wisconsin operates 13 thrift stores, nine of them in Dane County. For now, masks are required in all stores, and the organization is following local guidelines. David Johnson, the organization’s communications director, said Friday it has not yet determined if it will change its policies.

He has not heard of stores having problems with customers refusing to wear masks since the CDC guidance was issued on Thursday.

“Like any business we have some concerns with that, but if we encounter those situations we’ll handle it on a case-by-case basis,” Johnson said. “The new guidelines are so new that we’re in the process of addressing it and coming out with a uniform message.”

  • On Madison’s Monroe Street, masks and limited customers in the store will continue for the foreseeable future at Mystery to Me, according to Joanne Berg, who has owned the bookstore for nearly eight years.

Many of Berg’s customers continue to use curbside pickup, while the occupancy of the store at 1863 Monroe St. was increased this week from five people to 10 people at a time.

“We appreciate what’s going on in the world, but we simply don’t know if our customers are vaccinated or not,” Berg said. “I’ve not had any problems here with people wearing masks and I don’t think I will. We’re going to keep up with the mask mandate.”

  • Garver Events is delaying ticket sales for an event at Garver Feed Mill until possible local changes are announced, said Bethany Jurewicz, director of public programming and business operations for Garver Events.

“With Dane County saying they’ll be updating regulations next week, we’re holding off on launching ticket sales for our Isthmus jazz festival concert on June 17 until we hear what changes are made,” she said. “It is an indoor concert, and we’d like to consider all the options before launching sales.”

Jurewicz said that for upcoming shows she is preparing herself “for maskless people saying they’re vaccinated as I try to enforce Dane County regulations.” But right now, “the biggest stressors are actually having enough staff and furniture” for upcoming events, she said. Both are in short supply “no matter how much you pay for either, it seems.”

State Journal reporters Barry Adams and Gayle Worland and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gov. Tony Evers praised the new guidelines from the CDC, saying his administration would review the recommendations and evaluate whether to bring state workers back to offices en masse.

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Logan Wroge is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has been with the newspaper since 2015.

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