EAU CLAIRE — Falling COVID-19 case numbers, rising vaccinations and new recommendations from federal health experts led Eau Claire officials to repeal ordinances that required people to wear face masks in public buildings.
The Eau Claire City Council voted 10-0 in special meeting Tuesday afternoon to bring an immediate end to its mask mandate, followed by a 23-3 vote of the Eau Claire County Board that night.
“I truly believe we are a safer, healthier community because of all the steps, the actions this community took,” council President Terry Weld said. “We certainly aren’t at the end, but we got through this.”
The votes came in the wake of Thursday’s announcement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear face masks in public. There are some exceptions to that, with masks still required on public transportation, at health care facilities, in correctional facilities and homeless shelters, and other places where local laws, businesses or workplaces say it is necessary. The CDC also still recommends face masks be used in K-12 schools for the remainder of this academic year.
Councilman Jeremy Gragert said it seemed to him that fewer people were wearing masks this weekend in Eau Claire, reflecting the CDC’s new guidance.
“I think we’ve already seen a shift,” he said.
Though the rate of people seeking vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, 43.2% of Eau Claire County’s population was fully vaccinated by Tuesday, according to statistics from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s website.
“Our key message for all of you is the good news is vaccines are working and are our path forward in this pandemic,” said Lieske Giese, the department’s director.
However, not everyone can get the vaccine yet.
Groups Giese specifically pointed to are people who currently can’t get the vaccine — children under 12 and people whose immune systems are severely compromised. They account for about 15,000 out of the county’s total population of nearly 105,000 people, Giese said.
“Understandably parents are concerned,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said.
As a mother of a son who has a medical condition that puts him at high-risk but is too young to be vaccinated, Emmanuelle said she’ll continue to wear her mask in places in solidarity with her child.
But like others on the council, Emmanuelle said since the pandemic she has looked to public health experts for guidance and continues to support their recommendations.
In early April the local health department set a goal of 80% of the county’s population to be vaccinated by July. Despite ample supply and availability of vaccines, Giese said based on trends of people getting vaccinated that goal will not be reached.
However, she noted that in addition to those who have gotten vaccinated are people who already had COVID-19 and have natural immunity to it now.
As of this week, over 11,600 county residents had tested positive for coronavirus since the pandemic began. Giese said there were probably triple that number of people who had the virus but didn’t get tested for it. How long the natural immunity those people have is not known for sure, but believed to be three or more months, she said.
“We’re at a place where risk is lower but we’re not in a place where there is no risk,” Giese said.
At the peak of the pandemic in November, Eau Claire County was averaging over 200 new cases per day. This week the daily average is just seven cases — coming in under the 10-case goal the health department set last year.
Councilman John Lor said measures taken locally have reduced the spread of COVID-19.
“We have done a lot of things in the past year to save a lot of lives,” he said.
But with vaccines readily available and case numbers down, Lor said it is time to loosen up those precautions.
“Now I think it’s time for us to let up and let people in the community make their own decisions,” he said.
County Board Supervisor Colleen Bates voted in favor of the mask repeal but noted that “an element of risk” remains. It is important to understand “the benefits of living carefully during a time when we still have some infections,” she added.
Councilman David Klinkhammer acknowledged that ending the local mask mandate does run the risk there could be an uptick in coronavirus cases.
“What’s to be gained in how we interact, our mental health is worth the chance we could see that bump,” he said.
Following the vote, Klinkhammer took off his face mask and a few city employees followed suit during a subsequent meeting.
Federal and local health officials are telling people who have not gotten the vaccine to continue wearing face masks in public.
“Anybody that is unvaccinated is expected to still wear a face mask,” Giese said.
Giese also emphasized that masks are proven to be effective at slowing COVID-19 transmission and that masks are only one of several strategies to limit the spread of the virus, along with physical distancing and occupancy limits.
The County Board was able to vote Tuesday on repealing the mandate because it suspended board rules requiring two readings of ordinances. During its meeting, the County Board received seven verbal comments and 37 written comments. All of the verbal commenters supported repealing the mask mandate. Out of the 37 written comments, 29 supported fully repealing the mask mandate.
Prior to the City Council’s vote, six people supporting repeal of the mask mandate spoke during the public discussion portion of the meeting.
Eau Claire resident Kayla Rick said she’s opposed to telling people who are unvaccinated to still wear masks inside businesses. She referred to them as a “scarlet letter of a mask on their face” and a “new level of segregation and medical discrimination.” Toward the end of her comments, she referred to vaccination as a “medical experiment” and a “medical study.”
Though the city and county mask laws have been repealed, that does not prohibit shops, schools and other buildings open to the public from making their own mask policies.
The Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce noted that in its letter to the City Council and County Board in support repealing the local mask ordinances.
“We also understand that individual organizations, businesses and institutions may still choose to enforce their own policies requiring masks and other measures within their own locations abased upon their specific circumstances,” wrote Scott Rogers, the business group’s vice president of governmental affairs.
His letter ended by thanking the Eau Claire community’s response to the pandemic, which involved cooperation and communication from the business community.
“We appreciate the sacrifices that everyone has made in responding to the pandemic, and look forward to continuing economic recovery and achieving a new and better normal,” Rogers concluded.
Other Wisconsin communities also announced on Tuesday their plans to lift their own local COVID-19 mandates. Public Health Madison & Dane County stated in a news release that mask requirements for vaccinated people and gathering limits will end there on June 2. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett declared that his city’s mask mandate will end on June 1, according to reports from the FOX and ABC TV stations in Milwaukee.