In the wake of an emergency order requiring people wear face coverings when indoors in public in Wisconsin, local authorities and law enforcement have been weighing how to enforce the mandate — or if it should be enforced at all.
The mandate — which is scheduled to remain in effect though Sept. 28 — requires that anyone over the age of five wear a face covering whenever inside an enclosed space that is not a private residence or if other people are present. The mandate allows for a variety of exceptions, including allowing for the removal of masks while eating or drinking, for individuals in certain jobs, while giving a presentation, or for communicating with an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing.
The emergency order further states that the mandate is enforceable by a civil forfeiture of $200.
Shortly after the emergency order was announced on July 30, Price County’s two police departments announced on Facebook that they were awaiting guidance from the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office and would not be enforcing mandatory mask use, citing uncertainty surrounding the order.
Since that time, Attorney General Josh Kaul has released the following statement: “Increasing the use of masks means fewer COVID-19 cases, more lives saved, a faster economic recovery, and less interruption of schools. This new policy is a significant, positive step in the fight against the coronavirus.”
A post published by the Park Falls Police Department on Facebook stated, “In summary, AG Kaul advised the Governor’s mask mandate is both lawful and enforceable. AG Kaul made it clear however that the Governor’s intent is to encourage voluntary compliance through education, not enforcement. This is consistent with our understanding of Executive Order #82; that the goal is voluntary compliance and education and is not meant to be punitive.”
On Aug. 3, a local law enforcement meeting with administrators, representatives of the Public Health Department, assistant district attorney Mark Fuhr and administration from Price County and Park Falls was held in order to determine a county-wide approach.
According to public health officer Michelle Edwards, the county will be utilizing the approach of education first — although blatant or continuous disregard of the mandate may be forwarded to the district attorney’s office.
The district attorney will then determine whether civil action should be taken on a case by case basis.
Law enforcement will not respond to individual complaints or reports regarding the mask mandate, although they will respond to businesses that report individuals who fail to comply with a businesses’ face covering mandate and who will not leave the business.
“The science behind wearing a mask is proven,” wrote Park Falls Police Chief Jerry Ernst on Facebook. “Wearing a mask slows the spread of the virus. We ask our citizens to respect each other and not engage in arguments over this issue. The order itself gives multiple exemptions to the mask mandate. If you see someone not wearing a mask, please recognize that this person may fall under one of the many exemptions. It is not your place to confront them to determine whether or not they are exempt.”
Edwards also noted that there may be valid reasons — either physical, cognitive, or emotional — why an individual may not wear a mask.
Price County Public Health has posted an online complaint form for reporting violations of the emergency order. Those who choose to fill out the form will need to provide the name of the person or business of concern, time and date, location, the detail of the complaint, as well as the name and contact of the individual filling out the form.
A few complaints have already been received, although some lack credibility, according to Edwards.
Edwards told the Review that the health department plans to use the reports as a way to educate the person or business in question. If the health department believes that further action is required, reports may be forwarded to the District Attorney’s office.
New cases continue to rise in Price County
Eleven new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Price County between Aug. 3-10, with nine active cases as of Monday. Thus far, there have been a total of 32 confirmed cases of the virus in the county, 23 of which have recovered.
In the same seven-day period, Wisconsin saw 5,733 newly confirmed cases for a total of 61,061 confirmed cases, 9,383 of which were still active as of Monday.
There have been two individuals in Price County who have required hospitalization due to the severity of their symptoms, one of which has recovered. Statewide, there have been a total of 5,031 hospitalizations and 998 deaths attributed to the virus. A total of 50,662 people have recovered.
According to data published by the Price County Public Health Department on Facebook on Aug. 7, the vast majority of confirmed cases have occurred in the central part of the county, with significantly fewer numbers in the northern and southern reaches of the county.
There has been one positive in a child between 0-9 years old, two positives in the 20-29 year old age range, three positives in the 30-39 year old age range, five in the 40-49 year old age range, two in the 50-59 year old age range, eight in the 60-69 year old age range, five in the 70-79 year old age range, and one individual who was age 90 or older.
Specific details regarding the individuals are not released in order to protect individual privacy, according to the health department.
Regionally, several of the counties bordering Price County have seen recent spikes in case numbers since last Monday, and some have attributed deaths to the effects of the virus.
Oneida County leads the region with 154 confirmed cases, 48 active cases, 102 recoveries, and 10 hospitalizations. Iron County has had 75 confirmed cases, 68 recoveries, and three hospitalizations. Taylor County has had 71 confirmed cases and one death, but has not released recent information on recoveries or active case numbers. Sawyer County has had 70 confirmed cases, 32 recoveries, and three hospitalizations, but has not released recent information on active confirmed cases. Lincoln County has had 68 confirmed cases, eight active cases, 59 recoveries, and one death. Vilas County has had 64 confirmed cases, 50 active cases, 14 recoveries, and two hospitalizations. Ashland County has had 33 confirmed cases, 16 recoveries, five hospitalizations, and one death, but has not released recent information on active confirmed cases. Rusk County has had 21 confirmed cases, six active cases, 14 recoveries, one hospitalization, and one death.