By Shereen Siewert
City officials on Tuesday will review public comment before voting on a proposed mask order and limits on public gatherings in Wausau.
Tuesday’s meeting is set for 6 p.m., roughly the same time as Gov. Tony Evers will address the state about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin.
Members of Wausau’s Public Health and Safety Committee earlier this month recommended 3-2 that the city move forward with a mask resolution, rather than an ordinance. An ordinance would carry a civil forfeiture and would be enforced by the police, but a resolution would not include enforcement action. If the resolution passes in its current form, the face covering requirement would not take effect until Gov. Evers’ order expires. The current statewide order is in effect until Nov. 21.
If the council chooses, members still have the option to approve an ordinance that carries fines of between $10 and $40 for the first offense and between $50 and $150 for second or subsequent offenses. There are exemptions for people with specific medical conditions or those who cannot wear face coverings for religious reasons.
More than 100 people gathered outside City Hall prior to the Nov. 2 meeting to protest the proposed mask requirement. The group that organized the demonstration, Get Involved Wisconsin, opposes masks in part because they do not believe face coverings are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Two protesters who created a disturbance were walked out of Council Chambers by the deputy police chief. The committee consequently declined to accept in-person public comment at the meeting.
But public comment received through the city’s e-form and via email, included in the packet for Tuesday’s meeting, shows strong support for a city-wide mask order with opinion running at about a 2-1 margin in favor.
Health officials strongly urge face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is continuing an exponential rise in Marathon County and statewide. Marathon County reported an additional 589 cases since Friday and four additional deaths, bringing the overall death toll locally to 75.
Still, some residents are skeptical that masks work or that the virus can be brought under control at all or should be left to run its course. Others approve of wearing masks but resist being subject to any official mandate.
Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven told the Public Health and Safety Committee that 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.
The council will also consider an Oct. 30 executive declaration by Mayor Katie Rosenberg that limits public gatherings, but only in city-owned buildings.
Members of the public can attend Tuesday’s meeting in person, subject to the social distancing rules of maintaining at least 6 feet apart from other attendees, or by calling 1-408-418-9388 using the access code 146 270 6531 and the password wausau.