Eau Claire city leaders are advising people to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic but also are talking about the potential that could turn into a mandate.
The City Council voted 11-0 Tuesday afternoon to pass a resolution that encourages people to wear masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Today this is not a mandate. This is strong encouragement,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said Tuesday. “If a mandate comes forward, I will be there and my family will be there to support it with our very best.”
A large part of the discussion during Tuesday’s council meeting centered on the potential that Eau Claire could eventually impose a requirement for wearing face masks, as Milwaukee and Dane County have done in recent days.
Council members noted they’d received hundreds of emails from constituents in the past couple of days after people learned a mask-encouraging resolution was under consideration.
“We have had so many people reach out to us in the last 36 hours asking us to go further than what this resolution does,” Councilman Andrew Werthmann said.
Of emails that Councilwoman Jill Christopherson received, she found that about 72% wanted the city to stand in favor of wearing masks, 10% wanted to leave it up to individual choice and 17% were emphatic that wearing masks did not appeal to them, she said.
Several people who do not want to wear face masks spoke Monday night to the council, including Eau Claire resident Amanda Clausen.
“It is not a matter of inconvenience but a matter of choice,” she said, adding that wearing a mask reduces air flow.
Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese spoke Tuesday afternoon to the council to express local public health experts’ stance on masks.
“Cloth masks are not perfect, they will not prevent people 100% from transmitting or getting COVID-19, but they do make a difference,” she said.
Giese noted that studies have shown the majority of moisture particles expelled by people, which are the method of transmission for the virus, are caught by cloth masks when worn properly.
With the amount of new cases reported daily rising in recent weeks in the area, she said there have been conversations about the potential for a mask mandate.
“I am hopeful we can keep the disease spread as slow as possible and mandates won’t be necessary,” she said, “but this is a clear strategy that many people see as the next step.”
If and when a mandate could come was a question Giese didn’t have the answer to Tuesday, noting that public health officials make decisions based on data, including new cases, that is updated daily.
There is a public health order currently in place for Eau Claire County, which includes a recommendation, but not requirement, to wear face masks. That order expires in one week and is expected to be followed by a renewed or revised order.
Two council members shared personal stories on Tuesday about how they have been affected by the coronavirus.
“This last week I lost a family member to COVID-19, an uncle who was in his 60s. He lived in Nevada,” Councilman Jeremy Gragert said.
Councilwoman Mai Xiong said she lost a friend to COVID-19 about six weeks ago.
“She was very young, she was very healthy,” Xiong said of the friend, who was in her 30s.
With family members who have respiratory issues, Xiong said she wears a face mask with their health in mind.
“It is our duty to protect one another,” she said.
Gragert said that if Tuesday’s resolution doesn’t encourage more people to wear masks in public, the result may be more coronavirus cases and the need for a mandate.
“This is really the most basic step we can take to encourage wearing masks,” he said. “There will be additional steps we’ll need to take if the community doesn’t respond appropriately.”
Also during Tuesday’s meeting:
• A concept plan for Boyd Park, showing future improvements that would be funded by the Eastside Hill Neighborhood Association, was approved unanimously by the council.
• A resolution commending the work of city elections staff for holding a safe election in April amid the pandemic and encouraging similar measures for the Aug. 11 and Nov. 3 elections was approved in a 10-1 vote. Councilman David Klinkhammer cast the lone dissenting vote.
• In an 11-0 vote, the council rejected Shawn Lanier’s request for a license to keep chickens in the backyard of his residence at 1717 Necessity St. Lanier had been raising the chickens for about a year and neighbors recently complained about odor and rodents they attributed to the illegal chicken coop.