‘I don’t think anyone wants to have an order in perpetuity:’ Dane Co. mask mandate extended again

Dane Co. supervisor continues call for elected officials, not public health department, to make call on mandate

MADISON, Wis. — Dane County’s mask mandate will remain in place until the start of March, according to the latest guidance from public health officials.

Public Health Madison and Dane County announced the extension Wednesday, less than a week before the mandate was set to expire. The new order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 1 and will remain in place for 28 days.

“Our job in public health is to look at the health of the community, the health of the population and to support practices and policies that have an impact across the community, so that’s how we have to make these decisions,” PHMDC director Janel Heinrich said in an interview with News 3 Now.

PHMDC’s announcement came on the heels of several weeks filled with surging COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that pushed many local health care providers to their limits. While cases seem to be on the decline on the local and statewide levels, experts said it’s still too early to tell if Dane County has made it past the peak of the Omicron surge.

“I don’t think anyone wants to have an order that lasts in perpetuity, but we also know that this will be here. Covid’s not going away, but what’s our normal rate going to look like? What’s that normal experience? We’re not quite there yet,” Heinrich said.

The new order is set to expire on March 1, and while Heinrich says there is hope this could be the last mask order her department issues, they can’t say for sure.

RELATED: Has Wisconsin reached its Omicron peak? Local health officials say maybe

Since the holidays and throughout the new year, public health officials have struggled to keep up with local demand for COVID-19 testing, which prompted the re-opening of a large-scale testing center at the Alliant Energy Center.

The number of administered tests has varied on a daily basis over the past several weeks, but demand has remained relatively consistent amid the Omicron surge. On Jan. 12, PHMDC reported 10,633 people received test results, nearing the records set during the November 2020 surge.

According to public health’s latest data update, Dane County saw an additional 758 cases confirmed Tuesday, bringing the county’s 7-day average for new cases down to 1,031. During the height of the most recent surge in cases, Dane County had a 7-day new case average of 1,491.

While cases have increased during the Omicron surge, Heinrich says the mask orders and Dane County’s high vaccination rate have kept the number of hospitalizations and deaths down.

“We have (a) lower death rate overall in this pandemic than other places across the state. We also have higher vaccine rates and all of these prevention practices combined are having an impact,” Heinrich said.

In the wake of the latest extension, Dane County Sup. Jeff Weigand of Marshall said while he understands the science can change, he still wants more transparency.

He said he wants people to know “what the goalposts are… for when the mask mandate would be lifted and what criteria the public health department is going to be using in making that decision.”

Heinrich said Wednesday her department is trying to figure out if there is a concrete number the county needs to reach to toss out the mandate.

“With this new variant, the thresholds that we looked at in the past may have (a) different meaning than what they currently do with the more transmissible variant,” she said. “I think everyone is wanting one silver metric to look at and I wish I could offer that.”

Last month, Weigand and Sup. Tim Rockwell of Sun Prairie held a public hearing giving many opposed to the extensions a place to voice their frustrations.

“I think it proved that there are a lot of reasonable people that have opinions on this issue and that the public is really desiring to have input on this important issue,” he said.

RELATED: ‘A lot of folks… are frustrated’: Dane Co. supervisors host mask mandate hearing as Parisi stresses importance of controlling virus spread

Weigand continues to push for the decision about whether to require masks to be made by elected officials rather than public health leaders.

“You take the input of the citizens that they represent, you take the input of medical experts, of really everyone impacted and you make a decision in the best interest of the people you serve,” he said.

In a statement, Zach Brandon, the president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, said the announcement “was not unexpected, because there is still zero clarity from our government officials about how and when these emergency orders will end.”

“Dane County requires masks whether there are 1,258 new cases per day or 92 new cases per day, he continued. “Cases are starting to decline again in Dane County, and we need to move forward recognizing that this is an endemic disease.”

PHMDC said it has received roughly 130 complaints about mask compliance since Dec. 1, 45 of which have come since the current mask ordinance took effect on Jan. 3.

“At this time, no citations have been given in relation to those 45 complaints, however; the enforcement process is such that happens over a period of time so it is still possible,” department spokesperson Morgan Finke said.