The Whitewater City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to require masks in buildings that are open to the public to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Starting Saturday, Aug. 1, anyone who is age 5 or older in the city must wear an intact face covering when in an area of a building that is open to the public and when he or she is in line—indoors or out—to pick up food, drinks or goods.
The ordinance is effective until the end of the year unless the council decides to terminate it earlier.
The ordinance lists an example of a building where a public reception lobby does require masks, but spaces in that building where others work—and the public isn’t allowed—does not require masks.
Masks must also be worn at the Whitewater City Market and the farmers market held on Saturdays. The city manager will create a policy for city employees and for those in a city facility.
Private homes and apartment buildings do not fall under the ordinance.
Some exceptions to the ordinance are for those who have a written note from a health care provider, those who fall under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for exceptions because of medical conditions or disabilities, and those whose religious beliefs prevent them from wearing a mask.
“If a person states that they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask it shall be assumed that it is true without further verification,” the ordinance states. Council members discussed this passage but decided to leave it in.
The police department will be responsible for enforcement, but Police Chief Aaron Raap and council members are planning to urge the public not to call 911 about these violations. Doing so could overwhelm the city’s dispatch.
The ordinance calls for a warning for first offenses. A citation would come if a person refused to comply on first warning or for subsequent offenses.
A ticket for a first offense would be between $10 and $40, and for offenses beyond that it would cost between $50 and $150. Other costs would raise how much is owed, but the city attorney said that is typical in other locations and with other ordinances.
Building owners or operators have the right to refuse service or entry to anyone violating the ordinance.
In asking for public comments to be submitted ahead of the virtual meeting, city Clerk Michele Smith said she received roughly 100 submissions.
Among them, the Whitewater Area Chamber of Commerce expressed its support, saying, “We feel that it is in the best interest of the economic health of our members to foster a culture of business practices that will enable the continued growth and success of the whole community.”
The owner of a Culver’s restaurant in Whitewater also wrote in support of the ordinance. That owner said masks are worn by all staff members and that they take daily temperature checks.
However, that Culver’s is closed, the owner wrote, because someone who works there was exposed outside the restaurant, and it later had two employees test positive. The owner also said there is no evidence of transmission within the Culver’s and that they hope to reopen soon.
About 11 people spoke during the meeting’s public comment period, with seven of them speaking in general favor of the ordinance. The rest expressed varying degrees of opposition.
In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in both Walworth and Jefferson counties, as well as in Whitewater, according to the ordinance.
Council President Lynn Binnie said the city has about 109 confirmed cases, but about 40 of those have come in recent weeks. That’s an accelerated pace when compared to the first few months of the pandemic.
Evidence shows, according to the CDC, that face masks reduce the egress of respiratory droplets that spread the disease.
“Wearing face masks is a simple and effective way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” the ordinance states.
City Manager Cameron Clapper in a July 10 letter foreshadowed a need for a mask requirement, asking business owners and operators to enact safety measures as recommended by public health officials.
He also said it was “critical” to the city’s economy that students return to UW-Whitewater, adding that the absence of students would mean “certain death,” for some businesses—such as the hospitality industry.
“However, the University’s success in keeping students in Whitewater may greatly depend on how well our local business establishments observe health and safety guidelines related to COVID-19,” Clapper wrote.
UW-W announced June 29 it would require masks and social distancing for students returning to campus in the fall.
Chancellor Dwight Watson spoke during Tuesday’s meeting in favor of the ordinance, as did new Whitewater Unified School District Administrator Caroline Pate-Hefty.
Also Tuesday, Stacey Lunsford, director of the Irvin L. Young Memorial Library, said that because of Whitewater’s rising case figures, the library would close to the public for in-person services starting Saturday.
Curbside pickup services will be available from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday starting Monday, July 27.
“We regret the necessity of this action but our priority is to provide the safest possible services for our patrons and our staff,” Lunsford said in an email.
Walworth County on Tuesday reported having a total of 973 laboratory confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 895 people having recovered.
Four patients were currently hospitalized, according to the county’s daily update, which reflects figures as of the previous day. Eighteen people in Walworth County have died from the disease, and 56 patients are isolating at home.
Going forward, Whitewater council members plan to discuss at a future meeting what they should do, if anything, about requiring masks where groups gather outdoors.
Members also stressed the need to educate the community about the ordinance and relevant exemptions. They discussed having some kind of signage that businesses can use to put on their doors, as well as ways to offer masks to those who are unable to get them.
One question came into the council asking what science background council members had.
Brienne Brown said she has 15 years of experience as an epidemiologist. Matthew Schulgit said he has been studying infectious diseases for the last three years and received a national award for his work. Carol McCormick said she had a biology major and math minor.
Council member James Allen said it was a “sad day” that they had to make this call and not the federal or state government.
“As a person with four of the health risks, I have to be very careful not to catch COVID-19 because I would most likely die from it,” he said.
In defending the ordinance, Allen also pointed to what was asked of the country during World War II.
“It’s a small sacrifice to make,” he said of wearing masks.
Correction: This article was updated on Thursday to show that the city manager will decide on a policy for city staff and for those in city buildings.