The Dane County Board of Supervisors has overwhelmingly shot down an effort to repeal the county’s COVID-19 mask mandate.
Dane County’s current mask order goes through Feb. 1, amid a local surge of cases tied to the omicron variant. It is the only county in Wisconsin that still has such a mandate.
After more than five hours of public testimony and supervisor debate, the board in the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 7 voted 29-4 against a resolution that urged Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich “pull back her emergency order until public input and consent of the governed has been achieved.”
Voting in favor of the resolution were its co-authors Jeff Weigand of Marshall, Dave Ripp of Waunakee and Tim Rockwell of Sun Prairie. Supervisor Tim Kiefer, of Waunakee, also voted yes.
In making its decision, the board took note of the 547 people who registered against the resolution and 123 in favor of it, saying majority public sentiment was clear.
Chair Analiese Eicher noted the resolution wasn’t forwarded by any committee, but rather was brought directly to the county board. It had been indefinitely tabled by the Board of Health for Madison and Dane County in December.
Of the 64 members of the public who spoke during the virtual meeting, about half were in favor and about half opposed to the resolution.
Doctors, nurses and others in the medical field testified that masks are a clinically proven, effective tool to stop the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19.
And business owners and labor union representatives said the Dane County’s continued mask mandate ensures that employees and customers are safe.
“This is not the time to be removing the mask mandate,” said business owner Amy Owen.
Local resident Liz Dannenbaum, who said she lives with someone immunocompromised, said she “is so glad to live here,” in Dane County.
“I’m so glad the mask mandate is in place. It would be the absolutely wrong time to eliminate it,” Dannebaum said.
Madison School Board Member Nicki Vander Meulen said the mandate is protecting teachers and school children, especially those in 4K and early childhood who are too young to be vaccinated.
Social worker Kate Gravel said it’s protecting those in her profession whose work can only be done in-person, and the vulnerable populations they serve.
“Masking is helping to keep us safe so that we can continue to keep people safe in our community, who depend on us,” Gravel said.
And Rabbi Betsy Forester said without a mask mandate, religious activities couldn’t happen in-person, cutting off a vital connection for many people. “This supports the wellness of our members and all of Dane County,” Forester said.
In supportThose in support of the resolution, meanwhile, said masks harm people in a myriad of ways, including psychologically by not seeing each other’s faces and physically by being forced to rebreathe their own exhalations.
Parent Laura Kocum said the county mandate is affecting early language learning and called it “selfish to put children in the place of being responsible for stopping the spread of a virus that does not harm them and is not killing a significant majority of them,” by forcing them to wear masks at school, daycare and other public places.
Other speakers called the county’s mandate an assault on individual liberty.
Jeffrey Horn, of DeForest, said it “violates human rights and dignity,” and property rights. Horn and others also objected to Heinrich issuing public health orders that haven’t been voted on by the county board. “This body is directly accountable to the people,” Horn said.
Kristy Rewey, of Deerfield, said she “feels violated, because I can’t make my own health decisions. I do not consent, and I urge Public Health Madison & Dane County to withdraw the mask mandate immediately.”
“We are going too far in trying to dictate what people should believe in,” said Ronald Riechers, of Sun Prairie. “We might as well not have any freedoms anymore; we’re heading in a communist direction.”
The mandate is asserting “unnecessary and unreasonable control over the people,” agreed Kimberly Leanna, of Windsor. “If someone feels a mask will protect them, let them mask up. If that’s not their choice, let them be.”
“Why should we believe Public Health at this point? What is the finish line?” local resident Amanda Tetzlaff said. “We the people are fed up.”
“We are done wearing masks,” agreed Kylee Zempel, sharing her sad experience of trying on wedding dresses in a mask. “The county board has a chance to write these wrongs. Please, please take a stand for your weary residents. Enough is enough.”
And Kirsten Lombard, of McFarland, said the mask mandate has bred deep division between those who willingly wear them and those who don’t.
“There is a toxic atmosphere,” Lombard said.
Weigand said just before the board vote that he was “very proud of the fact that we are debating and talking about this important issue tonight.”
“We have unanswered questions. We don’t know the goal posts. We haven’t seen all the data that is being used to set the mask mandates,” he said.
Supervisor Michele Doolan, of Middleton, however, called it a politicized “overreach” to suggest that the county board should vote to override decisions previously made by the Board of Health and Public Health Madison & Dane County, whose authority to issue mask mandates in a medical emergency is in state statutes.
Ultimately, Doolan said she believed “this resolution is a result of people not feeling like they are being heard. I support doing a better job of connecting with our constituents, but this resolution is not the way to do it.”