Why was Milwaukee's mask mandate rescinded? Council grills health department, mayor's office

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – On June 1, Milwaukee’s COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted, but some members of Common Council question whether that is too soon.

Council members held a special meeting of the Public Safety and Health Committee meeting on Wednesday, May 26. The goal of the meeting was to ask the Milwaukee Health Department and Mayor Tom Barrett's office to explain their rationale for rescinding the mask mandate and public health order.

"It was certainly surprising and disappointing that we had no idea this was going to happen, and what it was going to look like and how it was going to be implemented," said Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, who is also the committee chairwoman.

Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said deaths from COVID-19 have decreased significantly and hospitalizations are the lowest they've been during the pandemic.

"We're in a place where the disease is going to be endemic here. We are going to have to live with COVID indefinitely -- that this disease is going to be present in our communities moving forward much like flu is, and I think we're just moving to a new phase," Johnson said.

She said the CDC's guidance for fully vaccinated people put the city in a tight spot.

"It just makes it very difficult for us to enforce (the mask mandate). There's no way to know who's vaccinated and who's not," Johnson said.

Council members grilled the commissioner during the meeting.

"In no way shape or form have I ever said I thought that individuals who are unvaccinated should be unmasked in public," Johnson said.

"But commissioner, you're rescinding the very order that requires the masks," Dimitrijevic responded.

Several council members raised concerns that lifting the mask mandate will disproportionately affect African-Americans, who have lower vaccination rates.

"It, to me, just opens up the floodgates particularly for the Black community here in Milwaukee," said District 6 Alderwoman Milele Coggs.

Aaron Szopinski, policy director for Mayor Tom Barrett, said the city wants to be sensitive not to highlight the racial disparities in a negative way.

"Just as the disease burden has reflected inequities in the city, vaccinations are reflected in those inequities. But enforcement of a mask mandate would also reinforce those inequities. Because those communities -- if you're enforcing a mask mandate -- will be disproportionately enforced for certain," he said.

The latest data shows 48.6 percent of the city has received one dose, but in the least vaccinated area, that number is 20.7 percent. That area is Census Tract 96, which is in the 53208 zip code east of the Washington Park neighborhood.

"There are some places that could have people maskless and 80 percent of those maskless people are unvaccinated," Dimitrijevic said. "I don't think anyone in this meeting can feel good about a 20 percent vaccination rate."

Johnson said the older population, which is at more risk for severe symptoms from COVID-19, is much more highly vaccinated. She said she is optimistic about the disease burden as the weather gets warmer.

"If you look at what happened last summer, the numbers continued to decline over the course of the summer and they didn't really start to increase again until September. I think that gives us summer to get more vaccine in arms, and so I'm not concerned about what may occur over the course of the summer in terms of disease spread," Johnson said.

The mayor's office reiterated that business owners and schools can choose to keep mask policies in place once the public health order expires.

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