Milwaukee’s COVID-19 health order will expire June 1 instead of June 15, city officials announced Tuesday.
With that, the city’s mask ordinance will also expire.
The complete lifting of orders marks a significant shift in the city, where health orders were put in place early in the pandemic and the mask ordinance was instituted last summer.
Milwaukee’s changes come as other municipalities are also lifting their mask requirements following new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week. The CDC said Americans who have been fully vaccinated may forgo masks and social distancing outside and in most indoor settings.
Dane County is among those lifting requirements. Starting June 2, all public health orders in the state’s second-largest county will lift, including mask requirements and gathering limits, Public Health Madison & Dane County tweeted.
‘COVID-19 is still here’
In Milwaukee, the mask ordinance will automatically lift on June 1 because it only remains in force as long as the city’s COVID-19 health orders are in place.
Businesses and other organizations will be able to establish their own masking requirements after the city’s orders cease, Mayor Tom Barrett said in a virtual press conference in which he asked that residents respect such individually set rules.
He and other local officials also encouraged residents to get vaccinated against the virus as the local health orders lift.
“We need to remember that COVID-19 is still here, and if there’s one message that we’ve gotten over the last week, it’s how powerful and effective the vaccinations have been,” Barrett said.
Lifting the orders is possible largely because of the vaccinations that have taken place up to this point, Barrett said.
Officials also urged caution.
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said that going unmasked inside, in public, is only for people who have been fully vaccinated. She acknowledged, though, that there is no way to know who has been vaccinated, so it will be up to individuals to follow the federal mask guidance.
Unvaccinated people, including children younger than 12 years old, should continue to wear masks in public to keep themselves and the community safe, she said.
Milwaukee County is seeing an average of 77 new COVID-19 cases each day and about one death every three days, said Ben Weston, director of medical services at the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.
The county remains in a state of “high disease activity” as defined by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and only 43% of the county’s residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Weston said.
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The good news, he said, is that cases are decreasing while vaccinations are increasing. Still, he urged caution.
“In our community in particular with these rates of disease and rates of vaccination, continuing to mask — particularly in public, more crowded indoor situations where you’re not able to tell who’s vaccinated and who is not — is still the safest practice,” Weston said. “Doing otherwise can make these situations less safe for many groups.”
Those groups include children who aren’t yet eligible to get vaccinated and very young children who cannot wear masks, people with compromised immune systems and others who cannot get vaccinated for reasons that include certain cancer treatments, he said.
Racial disparities in vaccination rates persist as health orders lift
Racial disparities in vaccination rates persist as health orders are quickly vanishing.
In Milwaukee County, 42.5% of white residents have received at least one vaccine dose compared to 22.7% of Black residents and 31.1% of Latino residents, according to state data.
Black and Latino communities were particularly hard hit by the virus.
Barrett said the racial disparities in vaccinations are a “major concern of mine” and that the city would continue outreach efforts, particularly in areas of the city with lower vaccination rates.
Johnson said the CDC’s guidance made it very difficult to have a mask order that only applies to people who are vaccinated.
“It’s really just put us in a position where we’ve had to make the best decision we can for our community and for our city, and we are very hopeful this incentivizes people who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated,” Johnson said.
June 1 date meant to give organizations time to prepare
The federal announcement caught Milwaukee leaders off guard last week on the same day local officials had announced the city would ease many of its COVID-19 restrictions on June 15.
Barrett said Tuesday that the new June 1 date was chosen to give businesses, schools, stores and event spaces time to determine what requirements are right for their establishments.
Johnson said her department would continue to serve as a resource to businesses as they work to determine their policies.
In the weeks before the health order expires, the Health Department plans to continue inspections of businesses, and violations will be reviewed by the department, Johnson said.
“We’re really thinking less around the enforcement and fining and more about this is an opportunity over the next two weeks to encourage businesses to continue masking and really address any egregious behavior,” she said. “So it certainly is not our intention to be punitive.”