Evelyn L. Anderson
Jack Kirk Biddick
Zola D. Kinnick
Jill P. McCord
Bessie Mae Stewart
As Shirley Mould waited to pay for gasoline and a box of doughnuts, she looked wilted by the heat.
On a sweltering Thursday morning, the 75-year-old Janesville woman was suffering along with all the other customers crowded in line in a convenience store on Janesville’s west side.
What set Mould apart was the cloth surgical mask that covered her face.
Of the 17 customers in the store, Mould was the only one wearing a mask.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into high summer, state and county data show that large swaths of Wisconsin, including Rock County, are now seeing a record rise in new COVID infections.
Yet even as the public health picture has worsened, some local business operators say they’re seeing fewer customers covering their faces.
That’s despite health officials continuing to urge people to mask up to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, a contagious disease that clearly is not taking a summer hiatus.
Mould said she doesn’t go shopping much lately, but when she does, she makes an immediate headcount inside a store to see whether there’s anyone else besides her wearing a mask.
“I look around, and I see some masks sometimes, but not too many. Mostly, it’s hardly any at all. I just try to stay as far away from people as I can,” Mould said.
“It really scares the heck out of me because I’m 75. I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I wonder what’s going to happen to us and to me.”
At Dave’s Ace Hardware in Milton, store manager Todd Hesgard said he has seen a decline since mid-May in the number of customers wearing masks.
“I was actually going to start to take count daily just to see, but I would guess we’re seeing less than 50% of the customers come in here wearing masks. I would guess it’s probably more like 30%,” Hesgard said.
Dane County officials next week plan to launch a mandate requiring mask wearing inside all public places. That’s in response to a dramatic increase in COVID cases in the Madison area.
Earlier this week, Rock County saw its highest spike in new, confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 41 new cases reported on Monday alone, according to county health department data.
The jump Monday matched a record set May 21 for new COVID cases.
A Rock County Public Health Department official told The Gazette this week in an email the county has no plans for a public masking mandate here, although the health department plans to survey businesses on mask wearing, and it continues to recommend that local retailers set an example by having employees mask up.
A recent national poll by ABC News and analytics firm Ipsos suggests an “overwhelming majority” of Americans—90% of people, the poll suggests—wear masks in public to lower the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19.
Similarly, two recent Gazette mini-polls suggest that about 85% of local residents say they wear masks while shopping or out in public.
Yet, that does not seem to be the case at the Ace Hardware in Milton.
“Staff at the store, we’re always masked up. But customers? It seems like most of the ones who come in and have masks on typically are the elderly people,” Hesgard said. “On the other hand, it’s amazing how many of the younger people we see who aren’t in masks. I don’t know if they just don’t get it, or if they don’t really care.”
Overall, state Department of Health Services data shows two-thirds of Wisconsin counties are considered to have high levels of COVID-19 infection, and the southern portion of the state—including Rock County—is at the epicenter of recent new infections, according to the data.
But in Rock County, there are no mandates for mask wearing, and the county’s health department has enacted no other hard requirements for physical distancing since the county lifted its own COVID-19 orders in mid-May and moved into a phased reopening.
In an email, Rock County Public Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval told The Gazette face coverings and masking in public are “really critical to slow things down going forward, and have always been one of the main ways we keep others safe” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, Rock County delayed moving forward to phase three in its reopening guidelines amid a rise in COVID-19 infections in local young adults. Yet even given recent, record spikes in new COVID-19 infections locally, its unlikely local health authorities would push Rock County to adopt a mask-wearing mandate like Dane County’s.
Instead, Sandoval said, the health department is taking a softer approach on the masking issue. It is leaving the decision to private businesses, which she said “have the ability to require and enforce mask wearing in their places of businesses.”
“We are working with the business community for implementing/requiring mask wearing. We feel that this approach will be more impactful and creditable. The community needs to see that businesses support mask-wearing and are not just doing it because it is mandated by one entity,” she wrote in the email.
Meanwhile, Sandoval as a Rock County public health official, remains named in a federal lawsuit multiple residents have filed against county and municipal governments statewide over earlier COVID-19 government restrictions of businesses.
Sandoval said the county continues to have authority to “protect the public from communicable diseases.” But she said the health department is not entertaining a countywide public masking mandate in part because there is a “lot of lack of trust in government” in the current political climate.
She said the health department wants to emphasize that wearing face masks is “not political” but “just the right thing to do.”
Hesgard said he believes the slackening he has seen in shoppers wearing masks started when the state Supreme Court threw out the state’s safer-at-home mandate and counties scrambled to backfill with other measures. Soon thereafter, Wisconsin communities reverted to a reopening approach.
Hesgard believes some people took those developments as a sign there was no longer a COVID-19 pandemic or, if there was one, it didn’t apply to their town in southern Wisconsin.
“What they heard is, ‘The state opened up. We’re open to phase one or phase two or wherever we’ve gotten to.’ But when that was said, all they really heard was, ‘It’s over. The pandemic is over,’” Hesgard said. “So now they’re just running around everywhere without masks on.”
Hesgard said his store and some other stores locally continue to require employees to wear masks even if customers choose not to. He said the harder button to push would be to force customers to mask up.
One large chain, Starbucks Corp., announced this week it will begin requiring all customers to mask up.
Hesgard said some local retail businesses, particularly small businesses, are still reeling from months of damage inflicted by the pandemic. They might be hesitant to come down on customers over face mask rules.
“Trying to get the customers into a brick-and-mortar store is a hard enough job right now, let alone if you alienate them and say, ‘Hey, you have to wear a mask to come in here.’ A lot of people aren’t really on board with that whole thing. They think COVID is a ‘plan-demic’ instead of a pandemic,” Hesgard said.
“They’re like, ‘No way, I’m not wearing one of those.’”
Wallace Peck was born during the Great Depression and lived a frugal life.
So it is no surprise that the Army veteran, who served in Korea, passed up a weeklong leave in Japan to have extra money to send home in November 1952.
Wallace gave the chance for fun and relaxation to another guy.
He had no idea the plane with servicemen aboard would crash into a fog-obscured mountain, killing all aboard.
Or that he would live with survivor’s guilt the rest of his life.
At age 86, Wallace said: “I never should have lived this long.”
The last time Janesville author and journalist Greg Peck heard his father tell the story, he learned new information. The information led Greg to a list of servicemen who died aboard the Fairchild C-119C.
“It shook me all over again that Dad made that decision,” Greg said. “I might never have been alive.”
Greg’s father died in 2017, but a story about him and the small decision with huge consequences will live on.
Greg has compiled a 170-page, self-published book, “Memories of Marshall,” which explores insights about family, community and himself.
The proud 1975 graduate of Marshall High School is a well-honed writer.
He retired in 2016 as The Gazette’s opinion page editor and worked at newspapers in Oconomowoc and Wisconsin Rapids.
The story about his father in Korea won the first-place Jade Ring award in nonfiction from the Wisconsin Writers Association in 2017, and he has received other writing awards.
Some of Greg’s high school classmates encouraged him to put together the book after he shared written stories about classmates who died too young.
His chapters focus on the Marshall area, but his themes are universal.
The sometimes-funny, sometimes-sad story of the village’s lone barber will take those of a certain age back to 1971, when locks were long.
The story about farm accidents, including one that killed a child, emphasizes how terrible the pain of one well-intended but bad decision.
The story about Greg’s favorite uncle, a farmer with a big heart, will remind many of the loved ones they lost to cancer.
The book is not a linear look at Greg’s life. Rather it is about everyday events, often with life-changing results.
“The theme that repeats over and over is that life is shorter than you imagine,” Greg said. “Your friends die off, maybe faster than you expect.”
One of his chapters talks about how he looks forward to class reunions, even dreams of them.
“Today, I appreciate my classmates,” Greg said. “If you don’t take the opportunity to keep in touch, you miss out on a piece of quality in life.”
All profits from paperback sales will go to the Marshall Area Historical Society, “which has done great work preserving our community’s heritage,” Greg said.
He is a lifetime member of the society.
“I hope this book encourages people to support their local historical societies with donations or heirlooms or to volunteer their time,” he said.
Maturity has given Greg new perspective on Marshall.
“I didn’t appreciate growing up there,” he said. “I wanted what kids in bigger cities had or what kids on the farm had. Now, looking back, I learned that I appreciate those opportunities (of small-town life) so much more.”
These days, when he drives the 35 miles north from Janesville to Marshall, he looks forward to making new memories.
Many of the places of his youth are gone. But he is happy that the historic bandstand is still there, even if it is in a different location; that the American Legion, where his parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, is still open to vets; and that the village still has only one stoplight.
Greg never liked history in school.
A few years ago when he wrote his first book, “Death Beyond the Willows,” he realized that people’s stories breathe life into history.
But stories are fragile and fleeting.
“When I sold my first book, I signed it the same way every time: ‘Every life holds a library of stories,’” Greg said. “I think that is true. Once we are gone, if we have not documented those stories, they are gone forever.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra .com.