Local health officials respond to overturned mask order

Nicole Aimone, Editor-in-Chief

Valley Sentinel graphic by Whitney Back

Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the statewide COVID-19 emergency order, meaning masks are no longer required in public spaces, at the state level. Local health officials in Sauk, Iowa and Richland counties were quick to respond with the importance of wearing masks, even without a mandate.

The Iowa County health department shared a press release on March 31, the day of the supreme court’s decision, stating the department will continue to encourage residents to wear masks and social distance in public, when they are around non-family members or not fully vaccinated individuals.

“The overturning of the State masking order today by the State Supreme Court does not mean masking and social distancing are no longer important,” said Debbie Siegenthaler, Director of Iowa County Health Department. “We all want to be done with this pandemic, but we need to hang on a little longer. One important measure we can take is wearing a mask. Iowa County residents have done a terrific job with prevention measures, including mask wearing and we ask that they continue until we can get a larger percentage of folks vaccinated. We are doing great, let’s not stop now.”

In Iowa County, about 36% of county residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, but the health department is urging even those vaccinated to continue masking in public.

The Sauk County Health Department is sharing similar sentiments, after announcing April 1 that a more infectious variant of COVID-19 was found in the county. The B.1.427 variant is associated with a more serious infection and symptoms of COVID-19 and has an increased person-to-person transmission rate.

“It is concerning that a more transmissible variant, meaning that the virus can spread more easily from person-to-person, has been identified in Sauk County. With this new strain being present in our county, it is even more important that we all continue to wear a mask, watch our distance, and wash our hands to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Treemanisha Stewart, Sauk County public health officer.

Sauk County remains classified as high COVID-19 activity levels, with 41% of new cases in the last two weeks of March being passed through community spread, meaning there is no known source for contracting the virus.

The Richland County Health Department urged its residents to continue masking, stating it remains the best defense against the spread of coronavirus.

“When the State masking order was overturned by the State Supreme Court, the legality of the order was challenged, not its wisdom or its commitment to the health of Wisconsin’s residents. Masking and social distancing remain extremely important. In fact, these measures, in combination with avoiding large gatherings and hand washing, are particularly effective in preventing the transmission of COVID-19,” said Rose Kohout, Richland County Health Officer.

The Southern Region Association of Local Health Departments and Boards (WALHDAB), which includes Adams, Columbia, Crawford, Dodge, Grant, Green, Iowa, Jefferson, Juneau, Lafayette, Madison/Dane, Richland, Rock, Sauk and Vernon counties, also released a statement urging Wisconsin residents to continue masking and social distancing.

Many counties, such as Dane County still have mask orders in effect. Businesses and schools can still require the use of masks as well.

Rep. Dave Considine, a Democrat from Baraboo, stated the overturning of the emergency order would not only affect masks mandates, but also additional coronavirus funding the state and it’s residents were receiving due to the emergency order being in place.

“The consequences of this ruling are great. They aren’t limited to the current public health emergency. This ruling may also keep Wisconsin’s neediest from receiving $50 million in federal food assistance each month. Without legislative action, we will be neglecting the low-income families who have trouble putting food on the table,” said Considine.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat from West Point, released a statement honoring Gov. Tony Evers’ work throughout the pandemic, while lamenting republic legislators for overturning emergency orders.

“There are two things this pandemic has taught us, masks work and Republicans don’t. While Governor Evers has worked diligently to protect the health and wellbeing of our communities, Republicans refused to do their job and undermined the Governor’s eff orts every step of the way as thousands of Wisconsinites lost their lives to this virus. This Republican backed lawsuit has shown that Republicans will go to any length in their vendetta against the Governor even if it comes at the cost of human life,” said Erpenbach.

Gov. Tony Evers released a statement urging residents to continue masking.

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, I’ve worked to keep Wisconsinites healthy and safe, and I’ve trusted the science and public health experts to guide our decision making. Our fight against COVID 19 isn’t over —while we work to get folks vaccinated as quickly as we can, we know wearing a mask saves lives, and we still need Wisconsinites to mask up so we can beat this virus and bounce back from this pandemic,” said Evers.