By Shereen Siewert

Members of Wausau’s Public Health and Safety Committee on Monday recommended 3-2 that the city move forward with a mask resolution, an option that critics say does nothing to encourage compliance at local businesses.

The issue is a contentious one, with more than 100 people gathering outside City Hall prior to the meeting to protest any mask requirement. The demonstration, organized by the grassroots group Get Involved Wisconsin, opposes masks in part because they do not believe face coverings are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Two protested entered the meeting and were walked out by the deputy police chief after they created a disturbance just before the meeting was called to order.

Marathon County Health Officer Joan Theurer told the committee that the health department, which is currently tasked with enforcing the state’s mask requirement, is overwhelmed with the substantial increase in COVID-19 cases. Deaths are rising enough that a mobile morgue was delivered to the city last week, officials said.

“If we don’t get this under control hospitals will be overwhelmed…that means people who need regular care won’t be able to get it,” Theurer said, adding that businesses and schools could close if infections continue to rise.

The committee considered two options that will now move to the full council for consideration: a resolution and an ordinance, which carry significant differences. Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg said if city leaders pass a resolution, no enforcement action is attached.

If, however, they pass an ordinance, there would indeed be enforcement as a civil forfeiture the way most ordinances are enforced – by the police.

Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven said his department doesn’t “have the capacity to enforce an ordinance” at this time. Bliven said there is also a shortage of dispatchers who would handle calls reporting violations.

Bliven said he chooses to wear a mask but he has serious concerns about the law enforcement responsibility in this enforcement. Currently, when businesses that require masks at their facilities encounter customers who refuse to comply with face covering rules and refuse to leave the establishment, they are free to call police for assistance. That could result in a potential disorderly conduct citation for the customer, depending on the situation, Bliven told the committee.

Dist. 7 City Council Member Lisa Rasmussen noted that despite some vocal opposition, public opinion has been strong for mask requirements. In Rasmussen’s district, those in favor are outweighing those opposed by a nearly 3-1 ratio, she said, with only five days of feedback being accepted.

The committee did not host in-person oral public comment based on safety concerns, Rasmussen said, but instead requested that those wanting to offer comment do so by email. Commenters can express opinions by using the city’s e-comment form or calling their local council ember prior to Nov. 10, when the council will decide the issue. See a list of council members and their contact information here.

Many Wausau businesses have so far refused to implement the statewide mask order, some going so far as to post signs on doors that erroneously state that asking customers to wear a face covering violate the customer’s Constitutional rights. Several business owners have told Wausau Pilot & Review they won’t enforce the order and risk the ire of angry patrons because there is no incentive to do so and no repercussions if they do not.

But Mayor Katie Rosenberg said that local businesses holding licenses are expected to comply.

Dist. 1 Council Member Pat Peckham moved for the resolution option, rather than the ordinance, seeking to enact the least invasive policy first.

The resolution passed by a 3-2 margin. Pat Peckham, Dawn Herbst and Rasmussen voted for the resolution, the only option voted on during the meeting. Becky McElhaney and Jim Wadinski voted against.

During the meeting, the group removed language in the proposed resolution that would require masks when residents left their homes to allow people to walk outdoors or to their vehicles without a face covering. See the full draft of both the resolution and the ordinance below.