Eau Claire County Courthouse

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EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire County Board approved a local mask mandate Tuesday during a special meeting by vote of 24-4. The local ordinance, which would only apply if a state mask mandate expires or is revoked, would require people ages 5 and older in Eau Claire County to wear face masks in public buildings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Supervisor Nathan Anderson supported the ordinance. Anderson said he knows the vote will upset some people but said “inaction is clearly more dangerous than taking action when it comes to public health.”

Supervisor Martha Nieman voted in favor of the ordinance, saying a person is not entitled to do whatever that person wants if that person’s actions could harm others.

Supervisor Colleen Bates agreed.

“I would hope that as a community we could be thinking, ‘We,’ not ‘I,’” Bates said.

If the county mandate goes into effect, it affects all cities, towns and villages in Eau Claire County other than the city of Eau Claire, which is covered by a nearly identical ordinance passed Tuesday by the City Council.

The Chippewa County Board has not considered any local mask mandate proposals. Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman said last week she doesn’t have the authority to implement a mask mandate on a countywide level. However, if the state mandate is eliminated, Weideman encouraged people to continue wearing masks, saying it is one part of the overall strategy to eliminate the virus.

Supervisor Joe Knight supported the ordinance for its potential life-altering impact.

“It’s not often that I get to cast a vote on the County Board that may save a life,” Knight said.

Supervisor Zoe Roberts concurred, saying she would rather make the small sacrifice of wearing a face covering than needlessly risk the lives of others.

The county ordinance was originally scheduled to be considered at the Feb. 17 meeting. Requests from supervisors for Tuesday’s special meeting came shortly after a state mask mandate appeared in jeopardy. Last week, Gov. Tony Evers issued an order extending the current state mask mandate through March 20. The Wisconsin Senate on Jan. 26 approved a resolution revoking Evers’ order. The Wisconsin Assembly hasn’t yet voted on a resolution.

The local ordinance is very similar to the existing state mandate, but it includes the requirement for businesses to post mask notices, which is not part of the state order. The ordinance will end on June 30 but can be extended or shortened by another County Board vote.

Exceptions to the ordinance include when people are eating, drinking, have breathing problems and have medical issues or disabilities. The ordinance also includes the ability of a local health officer or law enforcement officer to issue $200 citations for individuals who fail to comply with the ordinance.

Citations would be used essentially as a last resort if an individual repeatedly fails to comply with the mask ordinance. Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said local entities have not issued any fines so far related to the state mask mandate.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, 13 people spoke against the mandate and six people spoke in favor.

Multiple commenters mentioned the difficulty a face covering causes for people with a physical disability or developmental disability such as autism. Giese said she shares that concern, which is why disability exceptions to the mandate exist. She said the assumption should be that a person not wearing a mask has a reason not to.

The next County Board meeting is scheduled for Feb. 17.