Public Health Madison & Dane County has changed course on eliminating mandatory masking indoors, by extending its mask mandate until next year.
The health department announced in a release on Nov. 23 that its indoor mask mandate will continue until Jan. 3, 2022. Dane County had announced in October that it planned to eliminate mandatory masking on Nov. 27, when its latest public health order was set to expire.
Health department officials cite high case numbers, the newly-increased accessibility to booster shots and upcoming holidays as reasons for continuing the mandate.
“We had hoped to not issue any more face covering orders but in the last three weeks, our rate of disease in the community has nearly doubled, the rate among children is at an all-time high and in other parts of the state, cases are even higher,” said Janel Heinrich, Director of Public Health Madison & Dane County. “With the holiday travel season upon us, this Order provides more time for those who are newly eligible to get their first and second doses and for more adults to get booster doses.”
All people aged two and older will be required to wear a face covering indoors in public. The new order does allow people to remove their masks “if all individuals in an enclosed space are fully vaccinated,” the release said.
The new mask order will also require performers to mask up while performing, a change from last month’s mandate.
The county’s current mask order, expiring Nov. 26, allowed performers of “religious, political, media, educational, artistic, cultural, musical, theatrical,” events to forgo masks in front of a fully-vaccinated audience. The new order takes that exception away, mandating masking for performers.
However, this order, like previous ones, allows for people to remove their masks when eating or drinking, communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, obtaining services like dental work, swimming, sleeping or actively playing a wind instrument with a fabric bell cover.
The release said that Dane County is classified as a high transmission area by the Centers for Disease Control, and was seeing increased positive test results.
“Keeping a mask order as an added layer of protection is a smart decision for our county,” said Jerry Halverson, MD, Chair of the Board of Health. “Families may soon venture outside of Dane County for the holidays and will likely encounter areas with lower vaccination rates, so keeping masks on for a little bit longer provides a circle of protection for those who are still in the process of becoming fully vaccinated.”
“The best path forward throughout this pandemic has always been and continues to be vaccination, with boosters now approved for all adults increasing the existing immunity,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “Because we know how effective the vaccine is at preventing severe illness and death, this Order takes that into account, by providing an exception for vaccinated individuals.”
The county recently opened up access to Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine boosters to all adults in the county who had previously received two vaccine shots.
People are considered fully-vaccinated, the release clarified, two weeks after they have received the two-shot series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after receiving one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Receiving a booster does not impact your status as vaccinated or not.
McFarland School District masking conversation
The extension of Dane County’s mask mandate holds particular weight for the McFarland School District, after school board members voted last week to allow vaccinated McFarland High School students and staff to forgo masks after the Dane County mask mandate sunset.
The school board voted on Monday, Nov. 15 to relax mask requirements at the high school, and was considering revisiting masking requirements for younger students in January.
In response to the decision, a group of parents wrote a letter to administrators asking them to continue universal masking. That letter, as of Nov. 22, received more than 300 signatures from local parents and community members.
Samantha Zeilenga, one of the parents that helped organize the effort, said they plan to keep the letter open to show school administrators the community support for masks, which Zelilenga said could potentially impact future board decisions.
After receiving the letter, the McFarland School Board set a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. to discuss the district’s COVID-19 policies. Now, it’s unclear whether that special meeting will be necessary.
For more information about the school board's decision, or the letter from parents, see below.