Mask mandates passed by both Eau Claire City Council and Eau Claire County Board

UW-Eau Claire community speaks on the mandates

Lea Kopke

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Photo by Lea Kopke

Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, gives a presentation to members of the Eau Claire City Council during its special meeting on Feb. 2, highlighting why a mask mandate is needed.

Eau Claire City Council and Eau Claire County Board both passed ordinances for a mask mandate in the city of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County, respectively, at special meetings on Tuesday, Feb. 2.

The mirroring mandates are nearly a perfect copy of the current state mandate — the only difference is the addition of a section asking public places to display signage that states facial coverings are required — said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, during the city council’s meeting.

The mandates would only go into effect if the statewide masking order is lifted before June 30, 2021 — an action which state legislatures are debating currently.

On Jan. 26, Republican state senators voted to repeal Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate. The Wisconsin Assembly was prepared to pass this repeal last week, but pulled back after it was reported the move would put the state at risk of losing almost $50 million a month in federal aid for food stamps.

The Wisconsin Assembly now plans to vote Thursday, Feb. 4 on ending the mandate, after which the question would be sent back to the state Senate, who could then vote later this month to repeal the order.

The community voiced mixed opinions during the public discussion portion of the Eau Claire City Council’s special meeting.

Those in support of the mandate spoke of the need to listen to science, evidence and experts. Several said it was a patriotic duty to protect the community through public health measures. Others shared anecdotes of friends and family who’d passed due to COVID-19.

Those against the mandate spoke of how masks infringed upon their rights or voiced their doubts about the reliability of specific data sets and healthcare experts. A few people said they believed a mandate would create further divide in the community.

UW-Eau Claire community response

Chancellor James C. Schmidt made a blog post Wednesday, Feb. 3 regarding the mask mandates and the university’s stance on the issue.

Prior to the city and county meetings, Schmidt said he sent out a letter supporting the adoption of a mask requirement. He cited how UW-Eau Claire’s mask mandate made its classrooms some of the safest places in Wisconsin.

“Should the state mandate end,” Schmidt wrote, “I fear an uncoordinated approach to mask wearing would drive case increases in our community and only amplify strain on our health care and education systems.”

Several members of the UW-Eau Claire community came forth during the Eau Claire City Council’s public discussion segment to voice their opinions concerning the mandate.

Anna Ziebell, a fourth-year political science student and student body president, spoke in support of the mandate.

“The usage of masks on campus have kept our cases low, especially from classrooms and other buildings on campus,” Ziebell said. “The ability to still interact in person, safely, has helped students tremendously as we navigate some of the most difficult times our country has faced.”

Ziebell said she spoke on behalf of students at UW-Eau Claire. She said the mandate would help keep students safe both while on campus and during their daily lives.

She made a point to mention the many students, living both on and off campus, who work jobs within the city and county which are considered essential.

“From a personal standpoint, I also hold a sales associate position in the Oakwood Mall,” Ziebell said. “I am exposed and at risk, as many customers already refuse to wear masks, social distance, or even use hand sanitizer. If the face covering requirement is lifted at the state level, myself and my other co-workers will be at even more risk.”

Dang Yang, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, also spoke in favor of the mandate.

Yang told an anecdote about his own experience with COVID-19, as his uncle recently passed away due to the virus. He said he told his story so community leaders could better see and understand the faces which lay behind COVID-19 data.

“If our state had been more decisive earlier on, would he have avoided getting infected altogether?” Yang asked.

Yang also spoke of a letter, signed by 18 community organizations, agencies and departments, in favor of the ordinance.

UW-Eau Claire signees included representatives of the American Indian Studies Program, Hmong Student Association, Critical Hmong Studies Program, Office of Multicultural Affairs and Hmong Viv Ncaus Group.

The letter spoke of how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected members of Black, brown, indigenous and other communities of color, also providing community data to support its arguments.

“COVID-19 is decimating communities of color,” the letter reads. “Our only recourse at this time is to listen to the science and to keep steady on what we have been doing: wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart and staying home.”

Kopke can be reached at [email protected].