A controversial resolution urging Dane County public health officials to repeal the local mask mandate will finally be before the Dane County Board of Supervisors Thursday night, prompting outrage from local labor unions and faith leaders who support the mandate.
The resolution seeks to dismiss the current emergency order — which was issued by Public Health Madison & Dane County on Dec. 20, 2021 and extends the mask mandate through Feb. 1, 2022 — until public input and “consent of the governed” had been achieved. The previous emergency order had the mask mandate set to expire Jan. 3.
If passed, the resolution would act as a statement from the board, urging PHMDC director Janel Heinrich to repeal the mask mandate. It wouldn’t have any action attached to it.
Authored by county Supervisor Jeff Weigand, who represents District 20 just east of Sun Prairie, the resolution has been before the city and county’s joint public health committee twice, once in September and once in December. Most recently, on Dec. 1, the resolution was indefinitely postponed in committee.
Dane County Board Chair Analiese Eicher reaffirmed that public health officials have the statutory authority to help protect the public from public health emergencies. And she said the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be just that.
“I'm disappointed that we're going to see this resolution on the board floor tomorrow,” Eicher said. “I really see this as the unnecessary continued politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is unfortunate. This is not a right or left issue.”
The South Central Federation of Labor, a coalition of more than 80 unions in the region, voted unanimously at a December 20 meeting to oppose the resolution. Many of the labor coalition’s voting delegates belong to unions that represent essential workers like nurses, grocery store workers and firefighters, who have been educating themselves on COVID science since the pandemic began, South Central Federation of Labor president Kevin Gundlach said.
“They're very passionate because they are on the front lines,” Gundlach said. “They think that this is a very important mandate that needs to continue for the well-being and safety of the workers, as well as the community, and it should be based on science.”
Gundlach criticized the resolution, which says that “the scientific facts that Public Health Madison and Dane County reviewed regarding the effectiveness of face covers is unknown.” Science has shown that masks work to reduce the spread of the virus, Gundlach noted.
“This resolution is a slap in the face to the workers that studied this, that work on this, as well as to all the workers that are heavily impacted in their jobs … and to the progress we've all made to get people vaccinated,” Gundlach said.
Faith leaders back mandate
Others organizing in opposition to the resolution include members of the clergy like Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, president of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice.
“I think it's appalling that there's still people who are in positions of authority … who are still fighting against common sense public health measures and trying to substitute their own judgment or that of the general public for that of scientists and medical health professionals,” Margulis said.
Margulis made her opinion known to the board ahead of the Thursday meeting and sent a message to her network encouraging others to do the same. “We are getting a good response from people who are equally appalled and distressed and disturbed,” Margulis said.
The Madison-based, statewide interfaith advocacy group has been speaking up in favor of pandemic safety measures for nearly two years, Margulis said. They’ve worked with the Wisconsin Council of Churches, a network of more than 2,000 Christian congregations of various denominations throughout the state, to encourage faith leaders to promote mask-wearing and vaccination.
“As people of faith, we prioritize people's health and people's lives over any other consideration,” Margulis said. “We're also people of science, and the science tells us to do all those things.
“Those are the things that are going to get us out of this pandemic — not having our politicians second-guess what our health officials are telling us.”
In response to the surge in COVID-19 case numbers brought on by the Omicron variant, the Wisconsin Council of Churches issued a statement Wednesday urging churches not to meet in person for the next four to six weeks. Previously, the Council had recommended that, when congregations meet in person, everyone wear high-quality, well-fitted masks.
“Universal Masking by everyone in attendance can significantly reduce risk, the Council’s September 2021 online guide on returning to church explains. “This is one of the best practices that we recommend.”
Eicher said the board has already received hundreds of emails both in support and in opposition to the resolution. Those wishing to submit public comments can do so by registering to attend the virtual meeting.
It is not yet clear whether the county board will vote on the resolution at the Thursday meeting, following the discussion. Eicher said that even with a vote, the resolution doesn’t repeal the mask mandate.
“This resolution is simply a statement,” she said. “It’s really interesting that we've gotten to this point — but also not surprising.”