Two women, one wearing a plastic face shield and the other carrying at least two cloth masks in her purse, walked past a closed North Main Street tavern Tuesday afternoon.
The tavern, Legends, had a sign in the window announcing its temporary closure “due to a couple of positive COVID tests within the Legends family.”
One of the women, a Sharon resident who said her name was Sandy, was heading home from an orthodontist appointment in Janesville. Sandy said she had never seen such an elaborate setup of masking, air-cleaning machinery and sanitation rules in place like the ones at her orthodontist’s office.
Sandy had heard that Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday had extended his statewide masking mandate that was set to expire Monday. Nov. 21 is the governor’s new sunset for a mask mandate that has been in effect since August.
But, as in all things COVID-19, government mandates could change depending on the progression of the pandemic this fall.
Local residents, school officials, state lawmakers and business operators sounded off on the masking mandate Tuesday. Some support the governor’s move, while others say they accept the decision as an unsurprising development given a major spike in COVID-19 cases statewide since fall classes started at many universities.
“I think (masking) should be done. The numbers are still going up,” Sandy said.
Her workplace, a manufacturer, requires face masks, face shields or both. But she thinks small-business owners and customers in her town have grown lax about face coverings.
Sandy declined to give her last name because she said everyone she knows—co-workers, neighbors, family members—has a strong stance on masking. She didn’t want her full name associated with her stance.
Other people say they oppose Evers’ move, which came with his third declaration of a public health emergency since March. Opponents say the governor continues to exceed his powers and that his mandates should be reined in by the Legislature.
Evers extended the mask order even as his authority to issue it is being challenged by conservatives in court.
Rock County Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval said Tuesday before Evers’ announcement that she had been prepared to issue a local mask ordinance if the state’s order expired.
A local order would have been similar to Evers’ order, which mandates face coverings for everyone age 5 and older when indoors or in enclosed spaces with people they don’t live with.
Wisconsin’s COVID-19 cases have soared recently, and the state now ranks third in the country for new cases per capita, up from a ranking of 26th a month ago. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 912, an increase of nearly 104%. There were 357 new cases per 100,000 people in Wisconsin over the past two weeks.
COVID cases are on the rise in Rock County, too.
The county has 444 active and confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than double the number of active cases on Sept. 1, the health department said. Six Rock County residents have died this month after weeks in July and August when no one died from COVID-19.
Rock County has seen 2,287 confirmed cases since March. Of those, 8% have been hospitalized.
Patrick Gasper, a Janesville School District spokesman, called Evers’ extension of the state mask mandate a measure that could “work in conjunction” with a districtwide expansion of masking the school board approved Tuesday night.
With no discussion, the board approved, 8-0, a proposal to require masks in all district buildings until Dec. 22, about a month longer than the state mandate. Exceptions will be made for children younger than 5 and for those whose disabilities or chronic respiratory conditions that make mask-wearing impractical. Board member Michelle Haworth was absent for the vote.
The discussion comes as Craig High School and Roosevelt Elementary School remain closed because of a small number of COVID-19 infections confirmed earlier this month.
Gasper said earlier Tuesday that the district has seen no additional COVID-19 cases this week that he is aware of. He said officials opted to keep Craig and Roosevelt closed an extra week beyond the initial Sept. 25 end date.
The two schools are set to reopen Oct. 2.
Political reaction to Evers’ new declaration broke along party lines Tuesday. It drew fire from one local Republican state senator but was praised by a local Democratic Assembly member.
State Sen. Steve Nass, a Republican from La Grange, called the masking extension “unnecessary.” He said it was another example of “illegal conduct” by the governor’s office after the state Supreme Court struck down Evers’ safer-at-home order in May.
In a statement, Nass called for an extraordinary session of the Legislature to allow an “up-or-down vote” on the latest emergency declaration.
Nass said he believes the Legislature has constitutional power to open a session and vote on Evers’ orders without the governor’s approval.
It’s a move Nass said he prefers, even if the special session serves only as a precursor to a lawsuit against Evers. He said the Legislature could pursue both actions, but he fears Republican leaders plan to “hide behind a court challenge to avoid taking an up-or-down vote.”
Nass believes it could take “weeks or months” to get a court decision. Meanwhile, he said, the state would still be under “illegal” mandates and “dictatorial” rule by Evers.
State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, a Beloit Democrat, said in a statement that he is pleased Evers issued a new public health emergency and extended mask mandate.
Spreitzer said he believes the orders are spurred by a surge in COVID-19 cases statewide, which he called a “severe and increasing threat.”
“The science is clear, and we must do everything possible to slow the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks and practicing physical distancing,” Spreitzer said. “Wearing masks allows us to live our lives and support our local businesses while keeping those around us safer.”
He also encouraged people to get flu shots. Health experts say getting vaccinated for the flu could prevent hospitals from becoming overcrowded at a time when COVID-19 cases are spiking.
Evers has stood by Wisconsin university leaders’ decision to open dorms and allow in-person instruction despite a surge in cases on campus. Student spread of the virus has led to dorm quarantines and a shift to online-only classes on some campuses.
UW-Whitewater has reported 24 new cases of COVID-19 in students this week so far.
Twenty-three of the university’s 28 on-campus quarantine spaces are filled, and 34 of 90 isolation spaces are filled, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Quarantine spaces are used to separate students who have been exposed to the virus but might not have tested positive or have symptoms. Isolation spaces are for students who are infected.
Since UW-Whitewater opened its campus, the university and city of Whitewater have been at odds over how to enforce safety guidelines on and off campus.
The university allows people to report noncompliant behavior on its website.
Dan Cunningham, vice president of Forward Janesville, said the local chamber of commerce still has “no official stance” on a mask mandate.
Cunningham said he has seen almost no instances locally of employees or customers flouting statewide mask requirements or county health department mask recommendations.
Personally, Cunningham thinks wearing masks should be an individual decision. But he said the “great majority” of local business operators are cognizant of the statewide spike in COVID-19, and he thinks most have responded by continuing to require masks inside businesses.
Cunningham said he’s certain some are unhappy with a prolonged mask mandate, but the business operators he sees seem to be abiding by state masking rules.
“I rarely see anyone in a store or business here or anywhere in Wisconsin without a mask,” Cunningham said. “It’s certainly been an order that had been followed by people. It’s about what it takes for businesses to flourish, for people to keep dollars local and spend locally. If it’s going to be mask wearing, then fine.”
The state chamber of commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, said in a statement Tuesday that it is seeking more clarity from Evers and the state health department on masking.
The organization said it “strongly encourages” the use of face coverings, although it has pushed back against a mask mandate, saying at best it’s a “one-size-fits-all” approach to public policy that doesn’t work evenly for all businesses.
The group reiterated its request to the governor for more clarity or alterations in the rules on masking, and it continues lobbying for plastic face shields to be considered an acceptable type of face covering.
That’s partly because some Wisconsin manufacturers have pivoted on production and now are “proudly producing” plastic face shields, the organization said.
Gazette reporter Ashley McCallum contributed to this story.