Should the City of Milwaukee reinstate an indoor mask mandate? The Milwaukee Health Department and at least one member of the Common Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee have some differing thoughts on that.

At a committee meeting Thursday morning, Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic pressed Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson on the need for another indoor mask mandate. The city’s original mandate expired June 1.

“I don’t really think things are going well,” Dimitrijevic said.

Citing school closures, data that indicates Milwaukee is still in a state of “extreme transmission,” and a letter from various community groups, Dimitrijevic made a case for reinstating an indoor mask mandate.

“We’re in receipt of a letter from a really large, diverse cross-section of people,” Dimitrijevic said. “We got this letter yesterday, and it’s a lot of diverse people in the community that are calling for an indoor mask order. Chicago has it, Racine has it, I’ve been vocal about it. To my knowledge, it’s nine weeks of extreme transmission, some of the highest rates we’ve ever seen. Are we doing everything we can? I don’t think we are.”

But Johnson disagreed, saying that another mask mandate would not have the desired effect of curbing transmission of COVID-19.

“I feel very strongly that whatever policy or order that is put in place coming out of the Health Department needs to achieve the outcome we want to achieve,” Johnson said. “We know universal masking in schools is very effective. It’s a controlled environment. We can keep masks on students, we can keep masks on staff. We know that we can control spread in a classroom setting. With an indoor mask mandate within the City of Milwaukee, there’s no guarantee we’re going to achieve the outcome we want to achieve, because we know that people are predominantly getting it at events where they’re with their family members, with people they’re comfortable with, at other extracurriculars where there’s no enforcement mechanism. Those are private gatherings, and the mandate that we would put in place would not have an impact on those settings.

“If I thought universal masking indoors was going to reduce the number of cases, I would do it,” Johnson added. “I don’t feel strongly that it would. I don’t think it will have the impact that we want it to have.”

Dimitrijevic, however, pushed back.

“What are we doing to disrupt the cycle?” she asked. “Why are we not trying everything that we have available to us? Who’s going to look back and say, you know, we did too much? I think we’re going to look back and say we didn’t do enough.”

Johnson and Dimitrijevic also disagreed and who should reinstate a mask mandate, if necessary.

“I am not against a mask mandate, but I do think that if it’s going to be done, it should be done legislatively,” Johnson said. “You’ve done it before. If the Council feels that it will have the outcome that you want to achieve, then it should be done legislatively.”

“Why do I have to do my job twice?” Dimitrijevic asked, noting that Johnson could “go back to your office and write the health order now, and today at 5 p.m. people would be required to have masks indoors.”

Committee member Alderman Scott Spiker, meanwhile, shared his concerns about another mask mandate negatively affecting Milwaukee businesses.

“My district is surrounded by other municipalities,” Spiker said. “I have business owners who have been frustrated. They want to do the right things in terms of requiring their customers to wear masks, but they also have to make a living. And when your customer can vote with their feet, and their feet can just go literally across the street, that’s a problem for them.”

Dimitrijevic could not disagree more.

“With all due respect, I could not disagree more,” she said. “Where is the data that shows in Chicago and Madison that their businesses have seen such an economic downturn by masking? I think the most challenging time for businesses was when they had capacity limits. There are zero capacity limits right now. We’re out there celebrating the Milwaukee Brewers as if there wasn’t the worst increase in pediatric cases that we’ve seen, and that people aren’t missing school. The economic trials and tribulations are those schools, families that aren’t going to be able to go to restaurants or the grocery store. That’s a mini shutdown. People can’t go and enjoy the economy when they’re ill and disease is spreading.”

No action was taken at Thursday’s meeting. The next Public Safety and Health Committee meeting is scheduled for October 21.

“I think that the public needs to have a true image of how bad things are,” Dimitrijevic concluded. “This obsession with normal is just not founded. I want to get a grasp on what it would take to have that health order where we could disrupt the cycle and have more children in schools and be healthier. That’s something I’m looking for.”

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Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.

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