Dane County residents will need to keep wearing face coverings indoors until at least next month under a mask mandate extension issued Thursday by the local health department.
Public Health Madison and Dane County put out a new order to extend the mask mandate — which was set to expire Sept. 16 — until Oct. 8. Responding to pushback and criticism, though, the extension exempts some musicians and performers from needing to wear a mask as long as spacing and vaccination requirements are met.
“We highly encourage all performing arts to consider all the ways in which they can reduce disease transmission, especially as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread in Dane County,” Public Health director Janel Heinrich said in a statement.
Under the order, everyone age 2 and older is required to wear a face covering when in an enclosed building where other people not in the same household could be present. The extended mandate and its performing arts exemptions take effect Friday.
The new exemption allows people to go mask-less if they’re participating in a religious, political, media, educational, artistic, cultural, musical, theatrical or other type of presentation and for those playing wind instruments as long as they have a fabric bell cover on. But to qualify for the exemption, everyone at the presentation must be fully vaccinated, and the performers need to keep at least 6 feet away from the audience.
The loosened rules were welcomed news for Forward Theater Company, which had a public preview Thursday of its show “Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles?” with the official opening Friday at the Overture Center.
“I am very happy that our county has decided to make a carve out for the performing arts because we have been very safe,” said Jennifer Uphoff Gray, artistic director for Forward Theater. “Over the past two weeks there has been a lot of careful advocacy because we want to make it very clear that we are not trying to overturn the order.”
Dane County’s decision Thursday to lengthen the mask mandate — likely the only such countywide mandate in Wisconsin — came as the state reported 32 COVID-19 deaths, which is the largest daily total in nearly seven months.
The 32 newly reported deaths occurred over the past month, as is always the case with such reports from the state Department of Health Services. Thursday’s total may stem in part from a lag in reporting over the Labor Day holiday weekend. But the new seven-day average of daily deaths — which helps control for such reporting irregularities — is 11, also the highest since mid-February.
Just over a month ago, the daily average was one death.
Wisconsin had 1,918 COVID-19 deaths in November and 1,509 in December, when vaccines first became available to limited populations. The totals dropped each month until July, when the state had 37 deaths from the coronavirus. In August, the total increased to 199, with the total statewide since the pandemic began at 7,717 as of Thursday.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association on Tuesday said 1,045 patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized, the highest level since Jan. 8. The number declined to 1,039 Wednesday before going up again Thursday to 1,071. Dane County had 89 COVID-19 hospitalizations, the highest since late January.
Responding to a delta variant-driven increase in cases in August, Public Health returned to using a mask mandate as a means to control the spread of the coronavirus in Dane County — Wisconsin’s most vaccinated county.
“At this point in the pandemic, we all know how to help stop the spread of illness, by getting vaccinated, wearing masks indoors, going outdoors when you can, and distancing yourself from others,” County Executive Joe Parisi said in a statement.
The latest surge in the county peaked in late August and has been trending slightly downward since to a seven-day average of 55 confirmed and probable as of Tuesday, according to DHS.
Dane County has the highest vaccination rate in the state at 84% of the eligible population of 12 and older receiving at least one COVID-19 vaccine, Public Health said. But the county — like the vast majority of the country — is considered to have a high level of transmission by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When the mask mandate was reintroduced last month, it was swiftly met with a legal challenge appealing directly to the state Supreme Court, which late last month told a conservative legal group it needed to take the lawsuit to lower courts first.
Instead of filing a challenge to the mask mandate in Dane County Circuit Court, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is asking the Supreme Court to decide on a separate lawsuit — filed last year regarding gathering restrictions at the time — which makes similar arguments against a local health officer’s ability to impose restrictions without the approval of a governing body.
State Journal reporters David Wahlberg and Molly DeVore contributed to this report.