By Shereen Siewert
City leaders in Wausau approved a face covering resolution to take effect when Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mandate expires or if the state resolution is struck down in the courts.
The decision came on the heels of Gov. Tony Evers’ latest order urging residents to stay home, and on a day in which Wisconsin shattered previous records for COVID-19 infections. In Marathon County, 82 people have died, including seven over the past 24 hours. If enacted, the resolution sunsets on Jan. 31.
Members of Wausau’s Public Health and Safety Committee earlier this month recommended 3-2 that the city move forward with the resolution, stopping short of pushing forward an ordinance. An ordinance would be enforced by the police, but a resolution does not include such enforcement action. Gov. Evers’ order expires Nov. 21 and is also being challenged in court.
Dawn Herbst, who represents Dist. 9, objected to the resolution and criticized the Marathon County Health Department for only offering “doom and gloom” with daily updates. Herbst suggested that the department, which does issue daily numbers that include the number of people who have recovered from the virus, isn’t giving accurate or full information to the public.
Lisa Rasmussen, who represents Dist. 7, said public response to the resolution was strongly in favor of the requirement.
“How mortifying is it that a mobile morgue has arrived to accept the bodies of our families, our neighbors, our friends,” Rasmussen said, noting that infections in Marathon County are continuing a sharp upward trajectory.
But as Council President Becky McElhaney pointed out, the mask resolution changes nothing.
“We’re saying please wear a mask, but how can we call it a resolution?” McElhaney said. “I don’t see that changing anyone’s behavior who isn’t wearing a mask now.”
Rasmussen said that committee members looked at both an ordinance and a resolution and that many people offering feedback wanted an ordinance.
“That said, the committee shifted gears when they heard from the police chief,” Rasmussen said.
Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven told the Public Health and Safety Committee that his department would not have the capacity to enforce an ordinance, also pointing to a shortage of dispatchers who would handle calls reporting violations.
“If that was different, we’d be looking at an ordinance tonight,” Rasmussen said. “This is the least invasive option.”
But Rasmussen added that the ordinance is still a possibility if the council chooses to revisit the issue in the future.
“Our goal is to knock down virus numbers,” Rasmussen said. “We’re going to try the lesser measure first. Let’s show that’s all that is necessary. But if we learn down the road that we need something different…we can look at it.”
Mayor Katie Rosenberg reminded the council that they were in control of the proposal and had the power to add or change the language of either the resolution or the ordinance if they chose to do so.
The resolution also includes a recommendation for the Public Health and Safety Committee to explore additional educational opportunities and mask access moving forward.
Dist. 4 Council Member Tom Neal said health officials have strong support for mask use as being effective in reducing transmission. He urged businesses to work with the city to encourage compliance.
“I spent weeks, months, poring over information about this,” Neal said. “I certainly respect what the experts say; the great numbers are in agreement.”
Herbst, along with Dist. 10 Council Member Lou Larson and Dist. 11’s Debra Ryan, voted against. The final vote was 8-3.